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Old 12-06-2010, 07:52 PM   #1
gmw
cacoethes scribendi
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Moby Dick - why?

Okay, so now I've done it. I've read Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Being one of those (lucky?) people that didn't have to study it at school I thought it was high time I read it, rather than relying on quotes off Star Trek. I am done now and I have indeed learned from the experience, I now know never to do it again.

I've read several of descriptions of the book, see the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article for a typical example. What such descriptions fail to make clear is that the supposed plot is actually just a minor part of the book. To give a rough estimate I'd say the majority of the actual story telling takes place in a few chapters near the start and a few chapters at the end (and there are 135 chapters). The rest? Well, the rest seems to be dissertations on every facet of whales and whaling that the author could conjure, with just the occasional touching back to the central characters in a pretense at relevance. (I thought the chapter about the whiteness of the whale was bad enough, but there were three chapters on what's wrong with pictures of whales. Three chapters!)

That same Wikipedia article suggestions "stylized language, symbolism, and metaphor to explore numerous complex themes". I've never been particularly good at subtle, so much of any symbolism and metaphor was lost on me I think. I can handle stylized language, but eating a bowl of sugar has never been my thing. I'd find my eyes glazing over on some of his huge paragraphs, and by the time I'd worked my way to the end I'd forgotten where we'd started. Even some of this smaller paragraphs left me wondering what had been said. An example of this was where it seemed for a moment that Ahab may give up his obsession and Starbuck ("Oh, my Captain! my Captain! noble soul!") asks for the order to set sail for home, there follows a paragraph by Ahab that apparently tells Starbuck his hope was dashed. Well he's much smarter than me, I read that paragraph three times before I finally started to think that perhaps maybe I could possibly, albeit vaguely, see what had disappointed Starbuck. (I think he just got bored and wandered off.)

I see this as an ideal book for study at school. I think the language of the book truly needs an educated teacher to lead you through it, that spending classes dissecting paragraphs may be the only way to have many of them make any sense at all. I also think the book is unlikely to be damaged by intense study at school, as so many others are.


What was good about it? I liked the idea of the story, everything I'd heard about the story (as opposed to the book) made me think I should like to read it (although I was very disappointed to discover that the book tells of the reasons for Ahab's obsession only in retrospect). The book does have some absolute gems of lines, many of which you will have heard quoted in movies. I was surprised at the humour I found, and suspect there was more that went over my head.

But it was very hard work! For anything with a lesser reputation I would not have bothered to force myself through to the end.

So here's a question: How is it something like this has become (to quote Wikipedia): "widely considered to be a Great American Novel and a treasure of world literature" ? What did I miss?
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