With Moby Dick being free to download on Kindle, I’ve already tried twice to read it in text format. The first time, I gave up about a third of the way through. A few years later, I tried again, thinking that with some extra maturity and experience on my part, this time it wouldn’t be quite so boring and the dense prose not so much of a struggle to fight my way through. I was wrong. Yet I was still reluctant to abandon the book altogether. This may be because I had read an illustrated version of Moby Dick in high school, which I assumed was simply abridged, and thought that was pretty good. Looking up that version online, however, I found that it wasn’t just abridged but “retold” – it technically hadn’t reproduced the original text. Anyway, I decided to turn to Audible; listening to the audio version had worked pretty well for Ulysses, so why not Moby Dick?
Well, I’ve now reached the end, and I was indeed able to take more of the prose in, though it is still difficult and overly eloquent. Outside of that, it was….okay.
Moby Dick actually reminded me of Ulysses in that it has an overall style all of its own – and there’s also a lot of rambling. Most people know that the main story is about a whaling voyage where the captain, Ahab, is obsessed with hunting down Moby Dick, the white sperm whale who took off his leg. While it’s a basic quest story at its heart, Herman Melville gets as much as he can out of it, inserting lots of not-very-subtle symbolism about the hubris of man and the power of nature/God that he has no hope of ultimately conquering.
Yet of the one-hundred-and-thirty-five chapters in this nearly twenty-five-hour audiobook, only somewhere between half and two-thirds of them actually concern this story. For the rest, Melville – or rather, his narrator, Ishmael – wishes to teach the reader all about whales and whaling. Just about every little detail is covered, from whether whaling is an honourable profession, to whales in the fossil record (as of 1851, when the book was published), to the best and worst illustrations of whales, to why white is a frightening colour. In a chapter entitled ‘Cetology’, Ishmael lays down his own classification of whales, which makes for confusing reading over one-and-a-half centuries later as you try to match Ishmael’s species with those recognised today. In another, he has the foresight to speculate on whether there is a risk that whales will be hunted to extinction; he concludes not, as whalers don’t kill that many whales and they can always find safe regions to shelter. (Sadly, of course, he underestimated the persistence of human hunters and the slow rate at which whales replenish their numbers.) There is even a reference to the real-life event that served as inspiration for the story: the sinking of the whaling ship Essex by a sperm whale in 1820.
A lot of this information is certainly interesting on its own, but in this case, it’s mixed in with a fictional adventure – and that created frustration because often, when Ishmael stopped to deliver another info-dump, I was often more eager to find out what would happen next in the story. It becomes more difficult to focus: sometimes even the object of the quest, Moby Dick himself – who only shows up in the flesh for the final three chapters – feels less important than the cetology lesson. It’s also more difficult to connect with the characters this way, though there are some good individual chapters which get inside their heads. Ishmael being overly dramatic is sometimes amusing – after tripping over an ash-box, he jokingly wonders to himself if they are the ashes of Gomorrah – but we generally don’t get a strong feel for his relationships with other characters, even his friend Queequeg. Nor does he seem especially affected by the ordeal that he is telling the reader about. I recall the aforementioned retold version handling this better.
Moby Dick is certainly a unique book, and by all appearances, a strong case of the author producing just the sort of book he wanted to write. I am glad that I finally finished it, but unlike with Ulysses, I don’t think I’ll get anything more out of it if I return.