Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick

Why, in this day and age, where life moves at the speed of light and we have limited time to spend with dead white men, let alone ones who spent their lives slaughtering one of today’s best-loved animals, should a person, young or old, actually read Moby-Dick? Nathaniel Philbrick has many answers to that question in his thus-titled new book, and early on he lays it out pretty straight:

Contained in the pages of Moby-Dick is nothing less than the genetic code of America: all the promises, probelms, conflicts, and ideals that contributed to the outbreak of a revolution in 1775 as well as a civil war in 1861 and continue to drive this country’s ever-contentious march into the future.

This is a tall order, but Moby-Dick is, after all, a heavy book. Philbrick’s slim argument for Melville’s masterpiece is the perfect companion piece for a first-time reader, or even a reasonable substitute for someone who doens’t think he’ll ever make it through the real thing—and might have his mind changed by Philbrick’s exuberance. Like Moby-Dick, Why Read Moby-Dick? has many chapters (at least for its size—28 in 144 pages), each one giving it’s own good reason why you should read the book. From “Desperado Philosophy” and “Chowder” to “Unflinching Reality” and “Queequeg,” Philbrick has no shortage of interesting points to bring up, arguments to present, and anecdotes to enchant the reader with.

And, gratifyingly for someone as big a fan of Moby-Dick as I am, Philbrick has the right idea (no so surprisingly) about pretty much everything. He understands Ishmael’s “aesthetically sensitive, essentially Romantic nature,” and recognizes that “[c]ontrary to what many people assume, Moby-Dick starts not with Ishmael but with ‘Etymology.’” He claims toward the beginning that he is “not one of those purists who insists on reading the entire untruncated text at all costs. Moby-Dick is a long book, and time is short.” He continues:

Even a sentence, a mere phrase, will do. The important thing is to spend some time with the novel, to listen as you read, to feel the prose adapt to the various voices that flowed through Melville during the book’s composition like intermittent ghosts with something urgent and essential to say.

Philbrick himself gives you a lot of that prose, and this argument makes it clear that he’s hardly advocating simply skipping the weirdo stuff, like “Cetology,” but in fact that things like “Cetology” matter just as much as the chase itself. In fact, he “would go so far,” by the end of his book, “to insist that reading Moby-Dick is not enough. You must read the letters to appreciate the personal and artistic forces that made the book possible.” I’m not sure I would go quite that far—for the fanatic like myself, certainly, but for the average reader, the novel and a volume like this one are plenty.

There are a few things I wouldn’t place as much emphasis on as Philbrick does, like the novel’s connection to slavery and the Civil War. He connects, at one point, Melville’s famous “Catskill eagle,” in whose “lowest swoop…is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar,” to Abraham Lincoln, “a person who resists the fiery, disorienting passions of the moment.” I resist this; Philbrick is much stronger on the white whale himself:

The White Whale is not a symbol. He is as real as you or I. He has a crooked jaw, a humped back, and a wigglewaggle when he’s really moving fast. …So don’t fall into the Ahab trap of seeing Moby Dick as a stand-in for some paltry human complaint. In the end he is just a huge, battle-scarred albino sperm whale, and that is more than enough.

And in the end, according to Philbrick, the real reason he reads Moby-Dick is its “redeptive mixture of skepticism and hope, this genial stoicism in the face of a short, ridiculous, and irrational life,” which he’s done much to explain via his 28 points. Clarifying without oversimplifying, and describing and quoting at length from the lyrical words of Melville, Why Read Moby-Dick? is both convincing and itself a pleasure to read.


Update: I forgot to add the other day that the FTC compels me to disclose that I received an e-galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.