Why Read Moby Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick
Published in 2011 by Viking Books (Penguin)
Rating: 4 Stars
I’m finishing this review in a bit of a hurry, as I’ve just realized that today is Herman Melville’s 193rd birthday and I thought it fitting, since this book deals with his work, to post this tonight rather than tomorrow morning, as I had planned.
I read Moby Dick for the first time this February and, contrary to the predictions of my friends who have read it, I absolutely adored it from cover to cover. Of course, it helped that the whaling stuff, which everyone advises skipping, was exacting what I wanted to read as I am currently researching nineteenth century whaling.
Having quickly become a devoted fan of Melville’s novel, it wasn’t long before I found the work of Nathaniel Philbrick. He is a resident of Nantucket and the author of two books on the wreck of the Essex (the inspiration for the ending of Moby Dick), so he is in a prime position to appreciate Melville and in this volume, he tries to answer the question Why Read Moby Dick?
Philbrick points out, and I agree, that Moby Dick is not a book to be read for the plot. Melville does stop with great frequency to expound on everything from recipes for clam chowder to then-current theories of the zoology of whales. There are many layers in Moby Dick, and that’s what makes it so rewarding, like Shakespeare’s myriad plays on words that both obscure and illuminate a thousand connotations, so Melville paints the America of his time by describing the Pequod.
Philbrick touches on how Melville’s encounter Shakespeare at just the right moment in his life, when his early success, and perhaps his own hubris, convinced him that he could outdo the Bard. Comparing Shakespeare and Melville might be like comparing monarchs to presidents, but Melville certainly had the potential to do it. Unfortunately, Moby Dick was neither a commercial nor critical success in his lifetime and was only added to the canon of classics in the years after the First World War.
While I thoroughly enjoyed this slim volume, I do wonder about its effectiveness in inspiring someone to tackle Melville. It reminded me of many beauties of the book and gave me much to think about during my next read (for I fully intend to read Melville several times more). Nevertheless, the thematic organization of Philbrick’s essays doesn’t come together into a map to help guide one through the difficult parts of the novel (though, as the title of one essay reminds us, it’s “A Mighty, Messy Book” so perhaps no map would ever be adequate).
Even if it does not lure in new readers for Melville as Philbrick hoped, it has certainly made me eager for my next reading of Moby Dick, and eager also to explore more of Melville’s other writing and find out more his life in general.
For those who have not yet tackled Moby Dick, I would guide you to Jack Murnighan and his excellent encouragement of this and other classics in his Beowulf on the Beach.
This review also appears on Goodreads.