So, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is supposed by many to be the greatest Engligh-language novel ever written, especially among those written in the Romantic tradition. Meh.
It’s not that I don’t get that there’s a TON of complexity, subtlety, and depth to this book about a mad captain’s quest for revenge against a great white whale. And on the surface it’s even a pretty darn good adventure story. And, honestly, Melville’s prose is flowing, elegant, and as beautiful as any writing can possibly be. It’s magnificent, actually.
It’s just that any enjoyment or satisfaction I got out of the book was overshadowed by the tedious, largely pointless stretches of encylopedic descriptions about the whaling industry. Melville strikes me as one of those people who would corner you at a party and talk incessantly about whaling, whaling ships, whales, whale diet, whale etymology, whale zoology, whale blubber, whale delacies, whale migration, whale oil, whale biology, whale ecology, whale meat, whale skinning, and every other possible topic about whales so that you’d finally have to pretend to have to go to the bathroom just to get away from the crazy old man. Only he’d FOLLOW YOU INTO THE BATHROOM and keep talking to you about whales while peering over the side of the stall and trying to make eye contact with you the whole time.
Look, it’s not that I don’t get it. Or at least some of it. I get, for example, that Ishmael’s description of the absurdities of whale classification systems provide a backdrop against which to project the recurring theme of mankind’s doomed quest for complete understanding of truths that are ineffable and forever hidden (sometimes literally) under the surface. I get that. I just wish the guy didn’t feel like he had to take it to such absurd lengths. I do not need twenty pages about how to properly coil a harpoon line! I can see why most people don’t make it through this book without judicious skimming.
Still, I feel like I accomplished something and that I can now nod sagely the next time someone makes an oblique reference to Captain Ahab, mentions the Pequod, or refers to something as “that person’s Great White _______.” And chances are they skimmed more than I did, anyway.