Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Why Read Moby Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick


Why indeed? How about because it’s the best piece of literature written by an American? The Great Gatsby and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn might claim the title (from me anyway), but Moby-Dick stands out. This novel, which started out as just another novel about a sea-faring voyage, morphed into something much more: a meditation on the great world. 

Nathaniel Philbrick, author of the award winning In the Heart of the Sea about the whaling ship Essex tragedy that affected Melville’s work, writes a brief and perceptive appreciation of this great book. Philbrick’s book works well because his brief chapters reference scenes and characters from Moby-Dick that serve as a gateway to a deeper understanding of Melville, its time (America headed unknowingly into the crucible of the Civil War), and its characters. Each character plays a role in the drama of a ship’s crew, the great oceans, and the Universe. Philbrick reminds us that Melville has packed so much into this book some think is  "about a whale". Moby-Dick, for all its profundity, is in parts quite humorous, informational, didactic, and deeply insightful about human relations and our relation to world. Philbrick’s book reminds us of this. If, like me, you’ve only listened to it once (I’ve never read it), Philbrick’s book reminds you of why you can read it again (and again) with great profit and growing appreciation. 

If you’re wondering about why people make such a fuss about Moby-Dick, or if you read it as a youth and found it a bore, then pick-up Philbrick’s book and read it to gain insights into Melville and his great book and to motivate you to go read Melville’s masterpiece.

Postscript: I’ve listened to two of the (what I consider) three of the greatest American novels. (I also listened to Gatsby. I read Huck Finn in high school.) While I intend to go back and read Moby-Dick and The Great Gatsby, I value and recommend the listening experience. The performance (more than just a reading) of Moby-Dick by Frank Muller is outstanding. It got me into a book that I had started a couple of times but that I'd become bogged down in. Now I know where I’m going. For a fine appreciation of audio books, enjoy this NYT piece by Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann. By the way, I, too, have memories of passages from books that I heard associated with places. My favorite venue for listening was driving my car (not so much lately), but planes and trains work. Walking serves as a fine occasion for listening, too.

1 comment:

Tom said...

I just requested a copy from our library. Thanks! - Tom BJ Hlas