Tuesday, May 08, 2007


Earlier today I finally finished reading Herman Melville's Moby-Dick*. I had started reading this copy in October of 2005 (shortly before beginning this blog, incidentally) and had been picking it up for a while and putting it down for a while since. This should not be taken as a sign that I didn't enjoy it; indeed, I believe I can confidently say that of all the novels I've read, this one is my favorite. I should note that I'm a notoriously slow reader; I only finish a handful of books a year and will set down a book for weeks at a time even when I find it fascinating. The only genre fiction I read, then, is comic books (mostly the straight-up superhero stuff). If I'm going to put in the effort it takes me to read a book of substantial length, I want it to be a real classic to be worth my time. I also read a lot of non-fiction for pleasure and, as you might have imagined, spend a lot of time looking at maps and atlases.

A few notes on Moby-Dick*:
1. What makes this book so great is the incredible richness of the text and the depth with which Melville explores his themes of single-minded obsession and restless wanderlust. He famously goes into lengthy digressions to explain the intricacies of the whaling profession and devotes entire chapters to musings on subjects like "the whiteness of the whale" or a description of the pulpit at a church. I'd hazard a guess and say that roughly half of the book is, to at least some extent, not really about the plot. That's OK, plot is overrated. The result is that when reading this book, I felt almost as if I was living the story, a wanderer in the crew of a ship led by a madman.

2. I also think that it's an extremely manly book. I'd like to read a woman's review or critique of the novel. Not only are all the characters men, but the single-minded pursuit of goals seems to me a very masculine theme. While there are several very colorfully-drawn characters, there is very little in the way of character development, and the narrator himself is a cipher who fades into the background about a quarter of the way through. Add to that the very milieu of the sea and whaling, and it seems to me the mentality of the book would be somewhat alien to women, speaking in very general terms. I could totally be wrong, though.

3. My first attempt to read this novel was a few years ago, reading a very strange edition of this book in which the entire text was printed in the Caltech student newspaper, the California Tech. While I was an undergraduate, the outgoing editors, in an elaborate act of spite against the paper's office manager, decided to print the entire novel in a special section of the paper; this strained the limits of legibility with about 4.5-point text across 12 pages. As a challenge I tried reading it in this fashion; I got all the way to the 4th page before giving up. This gave me a taste for the book which I later satisfied with the more conventional paperback version I read from cover to cover.

4. Wouldn't it be the most amazing spectacle ever created if someone were to capture an albino sperm whale, take it into captivity, train it like they do Orcas at Sea World, and present a live presentation of Moby-Dick* in a giant amphitheatre? Just imagine it! More stupendous than any show ever seen!

*or, The Whale


At Tuesday, May 8, 2007 at 2:25:00 PM PDT, Anonymous doafy said...

I haven't actually read _Moby Dick_, but I did read _Billy Budd, Sailor_, which is a much shorter novel (novella?) about the sea by Melville.

You say Moby Dick is very manly. Is it as filled with latent homosexuality as Billy Budd was? I have heard generalizations that most of Melville's work is, but I've never read much that is specific.

(BTW, if I remember correctly, the main plot line of Billy Budd is that there's this beautiful young sailor, Billy, who kind of acts as a beacon that keeps the hopes of a crew of grisled sailors together because they all love him so much, and then by chance, I think they have to execute him.)

At Tuesday, May 8, 2007 at 3:24:00 PM PDT, Blogger Adam Villani said...

I've read Billy Budd, too. Moby-Dick has a good amount of homoeroticism, but it's not central to the story the way it is in Billy Budd. There's the early scene in which Ishmael and Queequeg share a bed together, and then later on (Chapters 94 and 95), there is a chapter all about a bunch of men squeezing the sperm out of a whale with their hands, which is immediately followed by a chapter in which they fashion a cassock out of the whale's penis. Then there's the whole chasing a giant albino sperm whale named Moby Dick thing, and the whole manly men being off at sea for many months at a time thing.

I've read Bartleby the Scrivener, also, but I don't recall anything homo about that one.

At Tuesday, May 8, 2007 at 10:36:00 PM PDT, Anonymous Joshua said...

What was the story behind the newspaper editors printing the entire novel in tiny type?

I assume they downloaded the text from Project Gutenberg or somewhere like that rather than typed it in.

At Wednesday, May 9, 2007 at 1:17:00 AM PDT, Blogger Adam Villani said...

I'll try to see if I can get one of them to tell the story.

At Wednesday, May 9, 2007 at 10:15:00 AM PDT, Blogger Mike said...

As one of the Editors behind the newspaper story, I can provide some details.

Yes, we got it off Project Gutenberg. Chris DuPuis combed through the text and formatted it properly for the newspaper.

The full story will be told in the next edition of "Legends of Caltech," which should be published soon, I think.

At Monday, May 14, 2007 at 2:13:00 PM PDT, Blogger Mike said...

In a somewhat confused article, John Lanchester writes, "even if you could rip an MP3 of Moby-Dick, who on earth would prefer it to a bound copy?"

I first read * or, The Whale on a PocketPC, as it happens.


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