This summer, I decided I needed some new audio books to help occupy my brain during the long daily walks my cardiologist ordered me to take. I’d been rotating between a couple of good recordings of the Tao Te Ching and Chuck Palahniuk’s excellent Consider This (about which I raved in my previous WU post), but it was time for something new. While I find significant value in repeatedly listening to particularly good nonfiction audio books, I was hungry for some actual storytelling. More importantly, I wanted a story that would LAST, ideally through many hours of walking. Ultimately I wound up going with Herman Melville’s classic, Moby-Dick.
It seemed an ideal choice, for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it’s long. Seriously long. With a word count that exceeds 200,000, most unabridged audio versions of Moby-Dick are 25 hours long or more, depending on the speed of the narrator.
And that brings up another consideration: I wanted a good narrator, if I was going to be spending so much time with him or her. Because the book is in the public domain and very popular, there is a wide range of recorded versions, so I “auditioned” a dozen or so samples before deciding on this excellent audio book narrated by Anthony Heald. After spending many hours with Heald in my head (so to speak), I’m convinced I made the right decision: He does an utterly marvelous job capturing the many moods of Melville.
I said I had two reasons for choosing this book, so now I’ll confess the main one: I’ve never actually read Moby-Dick. I thought I had – I mean, weren’t we all forced to struggle through it in high school English? – but once I looked at the first chapter, I realized it didn’t ring a bell at all. For one thing, within just the opening pages I encountered a cynicism and wit that I never would have associated with Melville, whom I assumed was all biblical furrowed-brow doom-and-gloom, all the time. I quickly realized that while I may have read about the book – and as a kid I loved the classic movie starring Gregory Peck – I’d never actually read the original book. This is a sensitive point for me, reminding me what a large gap there is in my cultural literacy, as I have read embarrassingly few of the commonly accepted “classic” books. So when the spirit moves me, I try to address that gap, one book at a time.
Ready to commence my journey with Ishmael and company, I began huffing and puffing my way around the neighborhood with my earbuds delivering Heald’s spectacular narration. Within half an hour, one thing was very clear to me: I didn’t know Dick. Moby-Dick, that is.
This was nothing like the book I’d anticipated. Melville’s voice (particularly as transmitted by Heald) was clever, witty and even… I struggled to find the word… whimsical at times. Definitely not the word I’d expect to use about the guy who gave us Ahab, that dark-and-stormy one-legged sea captain whom I think we can all agree has some serious issues.
As the days and weeks went on, Melville continued to surprise and delight me, leading me to many new discoveries about this book, 19th-century whaling, and the author himself. So in this post I’m going to highlight eight things Moby-Dick taught me about its author.
1. Melville is playful.
This was my biggest surprise. I knew Moby-Dick would be a long, dense book, but I didn’t realize its very length is the result of how unfettered Melville’s writing is. He clearly feels no pressure to “get to the point,” instead taking a leisurely approach, going off on tangent after tangent, and modifying his tone to suit both his subject matter and – I’m guessing – his mood on the day he wrote that portion of his story.
Melville’s voice ranges from biblically epic to drunkenly small-minded; from scholarly and authoritative to cringe-inducingly politically incorrect pidgin dialect. At times his words read more like poetry than prose, something that is particularly noticeable with the audio version, as an unmistakable iambic rhythm will occasionally surface and linger on the ear during some of his more florid passages.
He’ll create unapologetically long, languorous, lovingly ladled loads of alliteration (see what I did there?), such as “mingling their mumblings with his own mastications” or “all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude: on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen…”. (In my head I can’t help but hear that S-heavy excerpt in the cartoon voice of Sylvester the Cat. Yeah, I’m classy like that.)
Melville makes up words when it suits him, like cetology, crescentic and curvicues – and that’s just the C’s. As author Philip Hoare writes in this excellent New Yorker article about Moby-Dick: “Few books are so filled with neologisms; it’s as if Melville were frustrated by language itself, and strove to burst out of its confines.” (Side note: Hoare is also responsible for Moby Dick Big Read, a pretty cool website that hosts “an online version of Melville’s magisterial tome: each of its 135 chapters read out aloud, by a mixture of the celebrated and the unknown.”)
When he’s not busy making up words, Melville will sometimes demonstrate his willingness to let a single sentence last FOREVER. Think I’m kidding? Chapter 42 is a rhapsodic exploration of whiteness (stemming from the unusual coloring of the titular whale) containing a sentence that comes in at a whopping 467 words. This leads me to my next observation…
2. Melville is long-winded.
The man has a lot to say about… pretty much everything. Whaling, religion, race, other authors of whale-oriented books, nautical rope, whale foreskins (I’m not kidding), chowder, the generally low quality of most pictures and paintings of whales (seriously, there are three whole chapters devoted to this), whale guts and parts, and of course, the color white. Let’s be honest: At times he can be a regular Cliff Clavin.
But Melville’s unflagging self-confidence kept winning me over, and I resisted the urge to fast-forward through some of his more longiloquently prolix circumlocutions. (Yes, I did write this post with a thesaurus close at hand. Why do you ask?)
3. Melville is prescient.
Moby-Dick was published in 1851, so I was expecting the book to feel old-fashioned. But Melville had already lived a life of adventure and global travel, so he possessed a worldliness many of his contemporaries might have lacked; and with it, a certain cynicism that gives his work a far more modern feel than you’d expect from a book that still has a healthy dose of thee’s and thou’s in it.
For example, in the very first chapter, the narrator Ishmael is rationalizing his inclination to escape his troubles by going off to sea, maintaining that it was a matter of divine providence: a fate he could neither avoid nor deny. With tongue firmly in cheek, he claims:
And doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this:
“Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States”
“Whaling Voyage by One Ishmael”
“Bloody Battle in Affghanistan” (sic)
Wait, what? A contested presidential election? A war in Afghanistan? When the hell did he write this stuff? I stopped in my tracks when I heard this, sure there was something amiss with my audio book. When I got home I did some hasty searching to see if I’d misheard, but there it was, in print. In words written nearly 170 years ago. Spooky.
4. Melville is a major head-hopper.
While I always thought of this as being Ishmael’s narrative, Melville assumes many different points of view in Moby-Dick. He writes chapters from the perspectives of Ahab, the senior mates, a wild tag-team that bounces between a group of drunken sailors, some omniscient narration often taking on a very academic tone, and some poetic flights of fancy where I frankly don’t know who the hell is supposed to be talking/thinking.
He will often change POVs rapidly within the same chapter, but the effect is not jarring; in fact, it makes it seem somehow more modern, echoing the rapid jump-cuts we are accustomed to seeing in film and TV. Which leads me to my next observation…
5. Melville is cinematic.
Although Moby-Dick was written long before movies existed, the book features amazing descriptive passages that are truly cinematic in their sweep, drawing you in and immersing you in the sights and sounds (and occasionally, smells) of the story.
I’d take the film analogy a step further, and suggest that Melville may have single-handedly invented the “set piece.” A distinctive feature of Moby-Dick is the way each chapter tends to serve as a free-standing piece of storytelling, and sometimes the chapter is devoted to creating a highly specific tableau in which a particular action takes place. That kind of thing translates remarkably well to film, and I submit that if Melville were around today, A) he’d be a screenwriter, and B) we would know his name, like we do Mamet, Ephron or Sorkin.
But going back to the actual era in which he lived, I wonder if the standalone nature of most chapters of Moby-Dick was influenced by Dickens. Stay with me on this: Dickens published a lot of serialized stories, where he needed to deliver something that was both satisfying on its own AND made you want to read the next installment. While Moby-Dick itself was not published in that manner, Melville was both a contemporary and a fan of Dickens, so it’s not unlikely that Dickens’ modular approach to storytelling had some influence on him. Further supporting my argument is the fact that Bartleby, the Scrivener, a later work by Melville, was published in two serialized segments. I’m just sayin’.
6. Melville is kind of racist.
That said, his intentions are good. He is obviously into exploring – or, one could argue, exploiting – the shock value of “exotic” people, having spent significant time among them, both on the whaling ships and the tropical islands he bounced between during his wilder days. But he also is quick to highlight the dignity of the “other” people he’s writing about, often pointing out how their behavior and sense of morality is frankly superior to – and far less hypocritical than – the “almighty” white man. One of his pithier quotes from the book in that regard is: “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” Amen to that.
Where Melville falls short is in the truly awful pidgin dialect he assigns to his non-white characters, and in his clear assumption that everybody believes whites are superior in general. I’ll cut him some slack, seeing as he wrote this back in the mid-1800s. But a 21st-century reader is going to be jarred by some of his less politically correct depictions of non-whites, so consider yourself warned. Speaking of warnings…
7. Melville is kind of gay.
This one I didn’t see coming. And please don’t think I mean this as a slight; quite the contrary. Some of the most delightful moments in Moby-Dick are also the most homoerotic – whether they capture a tender moment or a humorous one. There are extended titillating passages depicting the tension and initial awkwardness of young Ishmael sharing a bed with the heavily tattooed cannibal harpooneer Queequeg in a Nantucket rooming-house while they await their ship’s embarkation. (One chapter in particular may have served as John Hughes’s inspiration for the “those aren’t pillows!” scene in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.)
To say that the friendship between Ishmael and QueeQueg blossoms would be an understatement. There is much pipe-sharing in bed (no, that’s NOT prison slang – get your mind out of the gutter), and Chapter 10 is devoted to a self-officiated marriage ceremony between the two men, cementing the permanence of their instinctively formed bond. I think Melville’s goal was to show how people of two radically different cultures could establish – and formally acknowledge and celebrate – a deep and lifelong connection. I was just surprised to find these tender moments of undisguised affection in a VERY male-oriented high-seas adventure story from nearly two centuries ago. Good for you, Herman. Well played.
Looking beyond Ishmael and his BFF Queequeg, the homoerotic thread resurfaces in a rather odd way in a lengthy look at the byproduct of the bloody hunt that consumes the shipmates’ three-year voyage: the “sperm” that is harvested from these whales. This is actually a waxy oil from the whale’s head that was used at the time for oil lamps, candles and more. In one memorable scene, Ishmael is tasked with repeatedly squeezing the oil from a recently killed whale to prevent it from congealing. Apparently he enjoyed the job, per this passage that must have made more than a few high school English teachers uncomfortable when reading aloud:
Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,—Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.”
Alrighty, then. Ahem. Let’s move on to what is probably one of my biggest takeaways:
8. Melville is a tease.
Seriously, this guy makes you wait for it. To wit, the first actual whale hunt – in a book ostensibly about whale-hunting – doesn’t appear until Chapter 61 (of 135), which is interestingly at almost the exact halfway point in my hardcover version. Coincidence, or literary strategy?
And other than several “could that be him?” sightings of large white UFOs (Unidentified Floating Objects) and far-away whale spouts, the actual namesake of the book doesn’t make his appearance until the final three chapters. Yes, 132 of 135 chapters of this behemoth of a book are Dick-free, and there are lengthy departures from the main plot where the white whale isn’t even mentioned for numerous consecutive chapters.
If you’re an impatient reader, Melville might occasionally try your nerves. But if you’re willing to join Melville as he romps from one rabbit hole to another, I promise there’s a good time to be had.
So what’s it all about, Ishmael?
My point in writing all this is to share how completely surprised I was by my first real deep-dive into Melville. Moby-Dick is truly a unique piece of work – and, I’ll admit, one that I think he’d have a REALLY hard time selling to an agent or editor in the 21st century. So it’s NOT something I’m holding up as an example of what aspiring writers should try to emulate. But for anybody who wants to watch an artist utterly going for it with seemingly no inhibition, I think it’s an exhilarating read.
And as I think this through, I’ll amend what I just said: There actually is plenty to emulate in Moby-Dick, because the author gives you so many different techniques, voices and approaches to choose from. It’s simply a master class in utterly fabulous and unconstrained writing – like literary jazz.
In fact, as a musician, the best analogy I can come up with is that reading Moby-Dick is like listening to John Coltrane. At times it can be dense and overwhelming; you may not always understand it; hell, you may not always like it; but with every word or note, you KNOW you are experiencing the utterly fearless conviction of an absolute master at work – or perhaps, at play.
Call me crazy (because “Ishmael” was already taken), but I heartily recommend that any serious writer give Moby-Dick a read – or a listen.
How about you? Do you know Dick?
Have you read this whale of a book? Did you like it? Did you hate it? Did you ever call Ishmael? Please chime in and share your Melvillian experiences. But most of all, stay safe and healthy. Thanks for reading.