Moby Dick

I finally finished Moby Dick. It took me nearly a year because I kept putting it aside for things that were more time sensitive or something that wasn’t boring my damn brains out or that wasn’t sexist or racist or bigoted.

Don’t get me wrong; it starts out charming and interesting. I read the first few pages poolside (which didn’t hurt), feeling excited and super cultured. But then it gets weird and then it gets boring before being briefly interesting again. And after that it’s boring for a long, long, loooonnnnggg time.

It starts sounding like a testosterone fest narrated by this squirrely womanizer. At some point I started wondering if Ishmael had ever even been on a boat or if he’d just done some research to weave into his increasingly pretentious set of literary references. I started having imaginary conversations with him (and Melville) that went like this: ‘Shut up. Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up.’ Moby Dick is like an encyclopedia swallowed a play that swallowed an epic. Apparently there’s some iambic pentameter but I missed it.

And yet, I’m glad I read it. When I cried after reading the last page, it wasn’t merely with relief. It was tragic and beautiful and somehow life affirming. It’s a story about honor and adventure and exploration and economies. It’s about what is best about the American experiment and also about our Achilles heel[1] of framing vengefulness as strength; obstinacy as leadership; and any and all sacrifice as heroic.

The whale that Ahab seeks is no villain but rather an innocent creature trying to survive. A living repository of a fuel that cost too much to extract and could never be a sustainable solution even if it didn’t. Maybe there are some modern parallels to this. Let me know if any come to mind, ok? And, in the end, I started thinking that all the racism and religious bigotry were meant to be ridiculous—to hold a mirror up to such nonsensical ideas. I saw a cool exhibit at the Whitney Museum that used pages from Moby Dick describing the whiteness of the whale to question buried assumptions regarding the inherent goodness and rightness of whiteness.

And the language, when it’s not pandering to men over their cigars or droning on about whale blubber, is lovely and poetic. For good or ill, Moby Dick is foundational. So many other works reference it. As do news stories (like this one and also this one). It’s woven into the original Wrath of Khan movie and bookends the first season of Netflix’s reboot of Lost in Space. It’s part of our cultural lexicon. I finally read it and I'm glad.

[1] Please note the literary reference.