The novel Moby-Dick started surfacing in my media consumption a few months ago—first, the “Hugo Girl” podcast did an episode about the book, and later I saw this brief Twitter thread about how Ishmael’s mood at the beginning of the novel is relatable to today’s Gen Z.
So I decided to re-read Moby-Dick, after reading it once in high school and again in college and then forgetting almost everything about it.
I enjoyed the book at first, when the protagonist (“call me Ishmael”) is on land. I imagine him as a smart guy, widely read, but an autodidact, with little or no formal schooling. I have known people like that and liked them. He loves to talk and think. He has crazy ideas. Everything he sees or encounters leads him to think about twelve other things. He works at manual labor, and talks and talks all day as he works. If he was your co-worker, you’d find him simultaneously endearing, entertaining, and annoying. The talk passes the time and if you tune him out and just don’t listen, he won’t mind.
Then Ishmael boards the Pequod, and I started to find the book less and less interesting and more dense and difficult to read.
Midway through, I just gave up. I had read precisely 42% of the book, according to the Kindle app.
I think my mistake might have been trying to read the book as a popular novel, rather than as literature. Rather than studying and analyzing every sentence, as I did when reading it for class, I tried to just read it, thinking deeply about whatever parts seemed to catch my mind, and just reading and enjoying the rest.
But eventually I began to come across more and more passages that didn’t make sense to me. If read very slowly and carefully, perhaps I could have made sense of them. But it was all starting to seem like work.
Maybe the language and culture have changed enough from when the book was first published in 1851 to make it hard to read today.
And maybe even contemporary 19th Century readers found Moby-Dick tough going. I know it sold poorly during Melville’s lifetime. His first two novels sold well, but his career slid, and Melville ended up working as a customs inspector, while continuing to write poetry. His literary reputation earned him an obit in the New York Times when he died at age 72 in 1891, identifying him as a writer of “seafaring tales, written in earlier years.” But they spelled Moby-Dick wrong.
I may try this experiment again, with a good annotated edition, which might hopefully help me better understand what I’m reading.
Image: Museon, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons