Flipping through long list of books I have yet to read and even a goodly number that I have already read I was overcome by a curious sense of urgency, possibly corresponding to my rapidly advancing years. It started in the Js and became stronger as I scanned through the Ks and Ls, becoming a visible trembling as I dipped into the Ms. Could it be?
Is it time for one last and massively enjoyable read of one of the greatest American novels?
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago- never mind how long precisely- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
Yes, it’s Moby Dick, or The Great White Whale.
I first read Moby Dick in Classics Illustrated form when I was in sixth grade. Of course it was a colorful and exciting yarn with an evil whale almost as bad as Gojira. Then, when I was a Junior in High School, they forced me to read Melville’s actual novel (possibly abridged) and I loved it. That year I also discovered the rollicking adventures of Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne (they forced us to read The Scarlet Letter under threat of re-introducing the stockade to High School discipline).
Note that I was too young for irony and really did enjoy reading these old farts.
I read Moby Dick after college two times, the first totally on my own and the second as a member of a Yahoo online reading group. Like Tristram Shandy and Ulysses, every time I reread Moby Dick it gets better and better (I prefer the Norton edition because it includes the maximum number of adjunct and explanatory articles). I know one of the criticisms of the novel is all that whaling lore included in the text that might not be necessary for developing the narrative, but I find all the arcane knowledge great fun and not to be missed.
After you read (reread?) Moby Dick, I suggest reading the much shorter Sea Wolf by Jack London. Notice it also displays a strong, often cruel, ship’s captain and some exciting, high-speed boat chases albeit for seals, not whales. London isn’t a very deep author but his books are often a lot of fun.
Oh, despite the presence of Gregory Peck or Patrick Stewart, I cannot recommend any cinema adaptation. The book is a classic; the movies are mere entertainments.