Top 5 bits of advice for first-time readers of Moby-Dick

In my line of work it’s fairly common to come across people who’ve started Moby-Dick but found themselves stalled somewhere along the way: in the details of the ship, the proliferation of supporting characters, the intimate chronicle of whale-parts and boiling blubber.

That’s to be expected. It’s not supposed to be an easy read. Right now, you could do a lot worse than to read along with my colleague and co-blogger Cyrus Patell, who is offering daily commentary on the podcasts currently being posted by the Moby-Dick Big Read.

But herewith I offer my own top five pieces of advice for taking up the book and living to tell the tale. I culled these hints from my notes for six lectures and codified them in listicle form for a McNally Jackson/TimeOut NY event I participated in last fall. I’d love to hear your responses, amendments, and additional suggestions in comments.


1. Think of the book as two books, really. Melville’s biographers will tell you that Moby-Dick emerged in its final form from a significant act of revision. By most accounts, he drafted an adventure narrative — Ishmael’s voyage on the Pequod, the encounter with the whale — but then spent a full year rewriting, turning it into an encyclopedic masterpiece. Two interventions seem to have prompted the rewrite: he met Nathaniel Hawthorne, his favorite living writer, who was 15 years or so older and to whom he would ultimately dedicate the novel; and he undertook a major study of Shakespeare’s plays. Reading these writers helped Melville broaden his ambitions and hone his skills as a writer of tragedy. If you feel like Moby-Dick contains two books straining against one another, with the action story going missing on occasion, this year-long revision probably explains why.

2. Try to keep track of the two books as you go. Think of them as forming axes along the lines of thought/action, or transcendental/material worlds. One is easily adaptable to film or graphic novel form, the other is a little more ponderous. My colleague Tom Augst refers to these as horizontal and vertical axes, running along the sea’s surface and climbing the ship’s masts, and the novel itself uses a vocabulary of surface and depth. Melville routinely compared reading — really reading — to diving. After hearing a lecture by Emerson, he wrote to a friend in admiration of “the whole corps of thought-divers, that have been diving & coming up again with blood-shot eyes since the world began.” When you hit the thought/transcendental/depth chapters, welcome the invitation to dive, expecting to resurface with blood-shot eyes. Melville was an avid reader of current philosophical thought, and sea voyages, if you were a passenger, were apt settings for long stretches of reading and thinking. He once sailed to London with the German philologist George Adler, an NYU professor, in the 1840s: “We talked metaphysics continuously,” Melville wrote in his journal, “& Hegel, Schlegel, Kant &c were discussed under the influence of the whiskey.” A bit of sub-sub-advice here: Keep an eye on Ishmael. He disappears for whole stretches of the book, and is rarely an actor in events. Those places where he fesses up to action are important, but when he goes missing for a stretch ask yourself why it matters.

3. If you start to feel bogged down in the whaling chapters, try looking for whatever’s not a whale. Lots of readers have trouble with Chapter 32, “Cetology,” for instance, and assume they just don’t care to know that much about whales. But the chapter, if you pay attention, is actually about books, libraries, and classification systems. Ishmael leaves his system unfinished. Why? In Chapter 96, “The Try-Works,” a meditation on melting blubber gives way to speculations about Ahab’s soul, by way of Ishmael’s framing the ship’s labor force as diabolical “savages.” One effect of this comparison is to remind us that the Pequod was named after a native tribe whose villages were burned to the ground by New England’s Puritan settlers, in one particularly brutal instance with 400 people trapped inside. The Puritan chronicler William Bradford’s second-hand account runs thus: “It was a fearfull sight to see them thus frying in the fyer, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stinck and sente ther of; but the victory had wrought so wonderfuly for them, thus to inclose their enimise in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enimie.” When it comes to Moby-Dick, in other words, a whale’s probably never just a whale, dead or alive. And in any case, rest assured that the action novel is sure to resurface before too long.

4. Remember that Moby-Dick doesn’t simply inaugurate the tradition of the Great American Novel; it’s also the the culmination of many histories, American and global. Melville’s novel undertakes deliberate engagements with many histories: national, economic, literary, and more. It’s obsessed, as the “Extracts” at the front suggest, with older systems of knowledge and forms of writing. For decades, Moby-Dick was taught primarily as a struggle between nineteenth-century New England transcendentalism and American’s putative Puritan/Calvinist origins. But it’s perhaps as common now to teach it as a profound reflection on the colonial exploitation of the new world. When we read the novel in my survey of American literature, which ends in the 1850s, it functions as a grand finale, and we spend a lot of time talking about how it sums up all sorts of discussions we’ve had along the way, about colonialism, nationalism, slavery, global capitalism, and transatlantic literary markets as well as America’s Puritan-origins myth. The truth is, it’s all of these things and more. Like the sea, it refuses to yield all its secrets to any one reader. But pay close attention to the ethnic, racial, national, and religious backgrounds of the crew and I think you’ll see that the scope of the novel’s meditations can’t be contained by the the adjective “American.” It’s a global text.

5. Remember that the book was a failure in its own day. If you finish it, this should help you feel smug in your ability to recognize its genius. But it’s also important to think about why it failed. Generically it was hard to pin down. Some contemporary readers didn’t even seem to recognize it as a novel; it was originally catalogued in libraries as a non-fiction account of the whaling industry. Melville, who had been a popular writer of South Seas adventure novels, found his reputation in decline, a process that accelerated after he published his bizarre novel Pierre shortly after. He didn’t fully get his due until modernist readers and writers, including D. H. Lawrence, recovered Moby-Dick starting in the 1920s. They were attracted to the precision of his language, his exquisite craft on a sentence level, and to the complexity of his prose. Finally, Melville’s ambiguities and difficulty were a plus. These aren’t attributes that popular mid nineteenth-century authors were known for: think Dickens and Stowe by contrast. To illustrate, and to conclude, I’ll offer one little morsel, a description of whale mothers nursing their infants, though the language should also remind us of the tension between Melville’s two books, discussed above:

But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence;- even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulfweed in their new-born sight.

With any luck that will get you as far as Chapter 87, at least.

21 responses to “Top 5 bits of advice for first-time readers of Moby-Dick

  1. Patrick says:

    “Lots of readers have trouble with Chapter 32, “Cetology,” for instance, and assume they just don’t care to know that much about whales. But the chapter, if you pay attention, is actually about books, libraries, and classification systems”

    Man oh man, is it really possible to have a chapter on whales, those great mysterious creatures, and have to sweeten readers on it by saying its really about a library filing system. If so modern readers are duller than modern books.

  2. Bryan says:

    Ha! Good point. I was reaching for readers who think they don’t want to read about whales, and to be fair, the chapter really *is* about libraries/books.

    BUT — you do make a good point about the limitations of this item in my list, which is that even though whales are often avenues for talking abt a lot of other things, they’re always also whales. Sometimes primarily. Among the other things the book is “about,” of course, it’s about the rapaciousness of the whaling industry and the consumer appetites it fed — including consumers who wanted to buy candles to read books …

  3. FPS says:

    The two books are a problem, yeah. The thing about Moby Dick that has been so hard for me is that, in its doldrums, I find it almost literally impossible to keep reading (this is as much about my own decimated attention span as everything); but then in the rest of it, I think it’s the most profound act of literary creation I can imagine. I read certain lines and just kind of reel from how beautiful and insightful is the thing I’m reading. Four pages later, I want them all to drown.

    Here is one of my favorite passages so far:

    “But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?”

    We went to the Whaling Museum in New Bedford on my birthday this year. It reminded me that I had (as I suppose kids do) books about whales and a fascination with whales for this tiny period of my youth, and then they vanished entirely into the ocean-as-metaphor-for-unconscious, but as we walked into the lobby of the museum and saw the gigantic whale skeleton that swoops down at you from the ceiling, I think my inner whale may have resurfaced. Whales!!

  4. Bryan says:

    The two books are less of a problem if you approach them that way, I think. It helps to say, “Oh, hey. I’m in that other book now.” And then you’ll find yourself in a place where you prefer the slow moments at sea. I think I said this before, but reading aloud helps. Melville always *sounds* good, no matter what he’s writing about. Sometimes he’s simply writing for the sound — which is part of what makes him feel proto-modernist, probably.

    I had thought about dedicating this post to you, Mr. Smearcase — your discussion of the M-D doldrums was on my brain when I dug out my notes from the McNally Jackson thing.

  5. David McAllister says:

    These points are very interesting. I have been looking for a good sophisticated book about Moby Dick but do not know what to get. Could you recommend some? And a biography? I have searched Amazon for anything under “Brian Waterman” but found no books. Thanks for this post.

  6. David McAllister says:

    Further… I had better luck on Amazon once I spelled your name correctly. Have you written any that discuss Moby Dick? There are a good number of books under your name.

  7. Bryan says:

    No, I haven’t published on Moby-Dick. But I can recommend a couple items aimed at a smart general readership: Andrew Delbanco’s biography of Melville for starters. Nathaniel Philbrick has a recent book called Why Read Moby-Dick that I’ve only read parts of but it seems like it may very well fit the bill. Philbrick wrote a great book a while back about the whaleship Essex, which is part of the backstory or source material for Moby-Dick. Along those lines I’d also really strongly recommend Ric Burns’s film Into the Deep, which deals with the 19th-century whaling industry but spends a fair amount of time with both the Essex and Melville’s novel.

  8. Bryan says:

    I posted a link to this at my Tumblr and someone reblogged, adding that he didn’t like the list. He offered this one instead:

    1. Locate a copy of the book that is pleasant to read (good typesetting, pleasant to hold in hands). It will be your friend for a long while, so now’s not the time to go all cheapskate.
    2. Make sure that your copy has Rockwell Kent’s illustrations. If you buy one without them, the first time you see them you will go mad with jealousy and buy another copy, so don’t waste your money on one without them.
    3. Keep an internet device handy for following up on mythological references, looking at schematics of whaling ships, etc. Or don’t. You’ll love the book either way.
    4. Find a comfortable place to sit.
    5. Read it.

    Not a bad list either. I especially like the recommendation to use a smart device (good notes work too, which is why I use the Norton Critical when I teach). As for the Rockwell Kent illustrations, well, I couldn’t agree more.

  9. FPS says:

    Another way to get through the book is to tell yourself maybe you’ll get a blue whale tattoo if you finish it. Or So I Hear.

  10. josh k-sky says:

    Yeah, I’ve read it twice, the first time diligently, the second ecstatically (both in classes, thank heaven), and 8.2 above is my only regret. Compounded by the fact that both my Republican uncle and my ex-wife own very old Rockwell Kent editions.

  11. Rachel says:

    With that logic, I should be planning a bitchin’ Aeneid tattoo. Bring it on!

    Seriously, though, thanks for this, Bryan. It has already provoked some great conversations and has put M-D on my list of OK, I Will Finally Read This resolutions for 2013.

  12. FPS says:

    Though I love Bartleby, I assume generally none of Melville’s other books are as interesting as MD, right? I have Omoo on my infernal reading device because it was free and because it’s in the crossword about every other week and it feels like I owe it to Melville to give it a go sometime.

  13. josh k-sky says:

    Omoo and Typee have some fascinating bits, especially about “cannibals”, but they are much more of the adventurous “first book” than the heady second. Billy Budd and Pierre are both amazing and queer as all get out. I have always wanted to read The Confidence Man but have never quite summoned the will. But I think you have to go hard #slatepitches to say that any of them out-do MD.

  14. josh k-sky says:

    I loved this book about MD when I was in college, but it’s kind of a weird one-off. Still, if you want to read MD as predicting the Vietnam War, Spanos is your guy. And his reading of the Ishmael’s “errant art” against the Cold War Ahabian power-struggle narrative is really valuable, or at least was to a mid-90s AmStud major. Bryan, ever hear of that one?

  15. Dave says:

    Excellent use of an illustration side by side with text. More posters should try this, now that the site has luxuriously wide columns.

    I started reading Moby-Dick this summer when I got a Kindle, and I made a lot of progress as long as I had to ride the subway twice a day. Now back to walking, I am going much slower. But it’s really great. So many of the sentences just stop me in my tracks. Maybe when I finish I will get myself an edition with the cool illustrations.

  16. swells says:

    That does it: I’m reading it again. I dreaded it throughout my undergrad career until forced to read it as an MA student, and was shocked by how much I loved it. I’m ready for a reread with your contextual tips in mind. Also, perhaps readers might want to see an image of your latest tattoo . . .

  17. T-Mo says:

    I’ve been trying a re-read of M-D since about Christmas, and now I feel compelled to keep trying. I want to second Bryan’s recommendation of the Philbrick book about the Essex, along with the edition of source material that Philbrick co-edited, The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale. The first mate Owen Chase’s narrative of the whale attack and the survivors’ months adrift at sea is gripping reading. I was first led to the book, as I am to many things, by music, in this case, Mountain’s “Nantucket Sleighride (To Owen Coffin)”. Starbuck is mentioned in the lyrics, but I didn’t know who Owen Coffin was. You can learn more about him here. Tragic.

  18. Bryan says:

    Hey, guys.

    #9 — Rach, so Aeneid tattoos are apparently a thing. But how about this?

    #10, 13, 14 — I’ve never actually read Spanos, Josh, but I’d love to. Michael Rogin’s Subversive Genealogy was a big Melville book in my Am St grad years in the 90s too … I remember liking parts of it but reeling from the impulse to cultural psychoanalysis as well. He’s a good writer though.

    #12 — FPS, you do have to read Billy Budd if you haven’t, but also “Benito Cereno,” which is as masterful as short fiction gets. I also really enjoy HM’s earlier novel White-Jacket, which I regard as kind of a warm-up drill for Moby-Dick. “The World in a Man-o-War”: lots of fun.

    #15 — yeah, the new layout is still new to me! I thought, “Why didn’t I ever use illustrations like this before,” but now I remember why. And re: Moby-Dick on Kindle, this.

    #16, 17 — I’m so happy to hear that this makes anyone want to read, re-read, or resume reading. Swells, there’s a link to said tattoo at the end of #8, above. T-Mo, you’re so right that the Philbrick edition of The Loss of the Ship Essex is a worthy read. Did you ever see Ric Burns’s Into the Deep? Thanks for the Mountain link too.

  19. Rachel says:

    Bry–No way! I was totally kidding, but check out all those Latin quotes! Is there nothing new under the sun? (Actually, that would be a good one too: “Nihil novum sub solem.” But where to put it?!)

  20. FPS says:

    Yes, I ought to read Billy Budd. It is Benjamin Britten’s fault I have not.

  21. T-Mo says:

    The Google “doodle” of the day celebrates the 161st anniversary of the first publication of M-D. Happy birthday, you big ol’ crazy book!