On Finally Reading Moby Dick
Moby Dick, by Herman Melville (1851)
Reviewed by Seana Graham
But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.
It was probably more than a year ago that a couple of members of my book group pushed for us to read Moby Dick together. I was among the more resistant. Although our group tends to enjoy the classics, the longer and more challenging ones have sometimes proved too much for us for us to deal with, either because of the tenacity they require, or because they are hard to discuss in our fairly casual gatherings.
As it happened though, neither of these members were present when a third member recently proposed that we try it as an audiobook. She had read a glowing review of it in that form by author Mark Haddon and had already obtained a copy. To my surprise, the group put up no fight and we found ourselves, well, launched. As the day drew near for our next meeting, a member proposed that we read it over the course of two months, which was met with a sigh of relief by most. So we have now had one meeting at the midway point of the book and as someone said at the end of the evening, “I think we love Moby Dick!”
Since I am constitutionally unable to do more than one thing at a time, I realized early on that it would take me eons to listen to it, so I decided to read it straight out. But at least two members went the audio route, and interestingly, one of them had finished the book by the time we met. I’m sure there are various recordings, but I did happen to find that Librivox, which offers free audio versions of material in the public domain,, has a highly rated one, which I’ll post a link to below. One problem for me with Librivox’s noble undertaking is that it’s usually a tapestry of volunteers who put it together, and the changes between narrators can be a bit jarring. But for some reason Stewart Wills undertook to read the whole thing and his recording is very highly rated.
I’ve had a couple of great reasons for reading Melville’s masterpiece over the years. The first was seeing a terrific play by Bill Peters called “Hunting for Moby Dick”, which he and his cast of seven players performed on a tiny stage right here in Santa Cruz, using nothing much more than a few sticks and sheets and rope to re-create the Pequod and everything that happened aboard and around it. More impressively even than this, perhaps, he left us with the language (and some sea chanteys!) still ringing in our ears. I immediately bought a copy of the book and sat down to devour it, but unfortunately was moving the very next day, and the Moby Dick project got lost somewhere along the way.
Much more recently, I saw the wonderful Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer opera version on PBS (incredibly, it’s available in its entirety on their website at the moment, at least where I am) and this is perhaps why I was particularly attuned to the operatic nature of some of the scenes among the shipmates. Ahab is an operatic figure if ever there was one, as well as a Shakespearean one.
So Moby Dick has been in some ways my own rather elusive great white whale, though certainly not a destructive one. I actually had the superstitious feeling that something would thwart me from finishing it even as I neared the end. But no, as of today, it’s done and dusted.
My final bit of advice, if you haven’t tackled it yet, is simply to surrender to it. Take it on its own terms. Think of yourself as Ishmael, setting out on a sea voyage which forces you to abandon all control. It will be an odd journey, as journeys through the classics often are. But if you persist, you will also find it to be a beautiful one.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She also reviews for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. She has co-authored a trivia book about her native Southern California and is currently working on a screenplay. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.
And how could I forget Matt Kish’s astounding blog of art work called Every Page of Moby Dick, which begins right HERE and was subsequently turned into a BOOK? (I’m belatedly editing this to add that I discovered by accident that Matt Kish actually wrote a piece about the project, right here at Escape Into Life. A little before my time, though.)