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How to Read Moby Dick

Moby Dick is one of those books that everyone knows about but very few people have actually read—though, for some reason, people feel that they ought to have read it. I wish I could release you, dear reader, from the belief that you ought to read any novel. Read novels because you enjoy them. And if you want to read a book just to be able to say you’ve read it—well, that’s a sophomore’s pleasure at best, and too small a return on the investment required to read a book like Moby Dick.

If you can remember one key truth, you can enjoy this book. Here it is: Moby Dick is a book about whaling.

If you can accept this fact, your chances of being one of the people who finish and actually enjoy reading Moby Dick improve dramatically. People sometimes assume that Moby Dick is really about something else—obsession or predestination or something—and only pretends to be about whaling. As if Melville started with some abstract ideas he wanted to talk about and, casting about for a way to talk about them, landed on whaling. The reader’s job in that case is to decode the whaling language to get to the abstractions.

The pleasures of Moby Dick are more akin to the pleasures of a police procedural like CSI or NYPD Blue. A better comparison, really, would be the Horatio Hornblower books or Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. In each case, the audience is brought into an unfamiliar world and told (in great detail) how things work there. And the story hinges on technicalities: tides, winds, DNA, rules of evidence. I love books and movies that explain how things are done. (“So that’s how you steal a car. . . So that’s how lye soap is made. . .”) That’s what I enjoyed about Moby Dick. When you’ve read that book, you know a lot of what there is to know about every aspect of the whaling business—from the uses of whale oil to the recruitment of whalers to crew politics to the exotic ports to the habits of every species of whale.

The piled-on detail seems oppressive to many readers; it truly is hard to handle. But the story begins to do its work on you when you stop trying to handle it. Moby Dick is not a book to be mastered. It’s a book to burrow into, to accept on its own terms. If you stay with it, its complexities begin to feel like the complexities of the real world. Melville unpacks the subject of whaling so thoroughly that transcendence—the transcendence that inheres in all human endeavor and in the natural world—has nowhere to hide. Which is to say, we get to the abstractions—destiny, obsession, sublimity [fill in your own abstractions here]—but not before we’ve bumped along through the concrete for many miles.

That’s what fiction is good for. It reminds us that there’s something big lurking just below the physical facts of the world we live in, ready at any moment to jump out and get us.


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