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Old 12-06-2010, 07:52 PM   #1
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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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Old 12-06-2010, 08:02 PM   #2
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Well, it did bomb when it came out...
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Old 12-06-2010, 08:06 PM   #3
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You missed...making a living off literature, without the talent to write.

Literature is not about storytelling, that's beneath their dignity. It's about obscure use of words, subtle descriptions, and a monomaniacal focus on the flow and shape of words. That's literature.

Thing like plot and the sense of "what comes next" are not only alien to literature, but will get you thrown out of the Guild...
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Old 12-06-2010, 08:54 PM   #4
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Yeah, it's about the ideas, the depth, and the symbols, and how it represents a period of history. It's not about having a thrilling story. If you want to get the most out of it you can, spend a moment trying to get into what Ahab's obsession with the whale meant. That's how it becomes a valuable book, through the fodder for contemplation it provides.
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Old 12-06-2010, 09:13 PM   #5
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Well, I guess I'm an odd ball, but I liked Moby Dick. Heck, I liked it when I studied it in the 8th grade. Different strokes for different folks as they say. Why do I like it? It's a window into a different sort of world. Yes, it does require work by the reader and yes, it can be difficult to read, especially if you haven't read that style of writing before.
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Old 12-06-2010, 10:30 PM   #6
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Several years ago, I bought a copy of Moby Dick at the local used books store. I have always enjoyed the movie version with Gregory Peck, so I thought I should read the book. Like the OP, I found large sections of text and even whole chapters that I felt could have been edited out. Some of this I slogged through and some I skipped entirely.

When I was done reading the book, I still felt that it was a worthwhile read and a reasonably good story. I also felt that it would have been an even better book if Melville's editor had been more ruthless in his editing. This is one book that definitely is better in the Reader's Digest Condensed Version.

BTW, the movie version was co-written by John Huston and Ray Bradbury. This is a classic movie. I don't even want to think about the Patrick Stewart version.

Stewart did an ok job as Picard (after season one), but the only movie I've seen him in where I thought he did a good acting job was Safe House. He really sucked as Scrooge. I haven't been impressed with him as a Shakespearian actor either.

Joe
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Old 12-07-2010, 03:25 AM   #7
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lilac_jive: Yes I think the lack of popularity at the time it came out, especially from an author that had enjoyed earlier success, does say something - about the book and about its reasons for becoming ... acclaimed, later.

Ralph Sir Edward: I've felt that way about more "literature" before, but for this one I had built up hopes or expectations that were quite disappointed.

foreverjuly: I did try with this book, I came to it with positive expectations, but felt almost as if Melville was working against me. It was the issue of Ahab's obsession that I found most disappointing. Ahab is brought on stage, as it were, with his obsession already extant and, it seemed to me, with little tangible exploration. There is that wonderful quote: "He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it." But other than saying the same thing in several different ways I never felt as though he really added any depth beyond that one wonderful phrase. Starbuck, I felt, had more substance than Ahab.

pwalker8: There were times when I felt has though Melville gave me a reasonable "window into a different sort of world" but then another digression would follow and I would lose my place again. Authors like Dickens, Austen and H.G.Wells (to name some I like) I find will take me some pages or chapters to adapt to their style, so I do know what you mean, but with Melville I felt as though he never gave me much chance because his style kept moving around. (Well, that's they way I felt about it. As you say, different strokes etc.)

jgray: I agree. I felt as though I could go back though and simply drop half the chapters and suddenly get a much better book. Then go through again and drop half the paragraphs from what remained and I think I might get a book I could sit down and possibly even enjoy. I've never seen Moby Dick on film, having read the book now I cannot imagine any film being much like it. (I doubt if I could watch Patrick Stewart without expecting the whole scene to transform into the holodeck .
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Old 12-07-2010, 06:41 AM   #8
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Love the book. Have read it several times.

In 1996 I rode a bicycle from Jerusalem to South Africa and became utterly desperate for something to read. In Nairobi I found a copy of Moby Dick and dragged it along. I had become obsessed by weight by this time so as I read the book I tore off the finished pages and used them for starting the evening fire and other less polite things. I was sad when eventually all I had was the back cover and a few final pages left in my hand. Developed an emotional attachment to the book. Loved the language. Good times.
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Old 12-07-2010, 07:40 AM   #9
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Originally Posted by HappyMartin View Post
Love the book. Have read it several times.

In 1996 I rode a bicycle from Jerusalem to South Africa and became utterly desperate for something to read. In Nairobi I found a copy of Moby Dick and dragged it along. I had become obsessed by weight by this time so as I read the book I tore off the finished pages and used them for starting the evening fire and other less polite things. I was sad when eventually all I had was the back cover and a few final pages left in my hand. Developed an emotional attachment to the book. Loved the language. Good times.

Me..... Had a similar experience...tore it up as I was reading on the road. Loved it..used it as a pillow for half of my trip...sleeping in train stations in parts of Europe.... I think it is a classic. I understand why people dislike it but... I am one of those who love literature...and may be snobbish about some of what I refuse to read..but so be it....

As for EDITING: TOLKIEN, Stephen King, Dickens, quite a few scifi authors and heaps of other writers needed and need heaps of editing... yet people seem to wade through PULP FICTION series that never end... not for me but good for some....
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Old 12-07-2010, 07:59 AM   #10
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I did have to study Moby Dick in one of my literature classes in college, but after a degree and a masters in literature, I was required to read just about all the "Standard" classics.

I struggled with the book at the time I was forced to read it, probably due to the pace at which I had to read it and the analysis which was forcefed me that I then had to regurgitate to get a good grade. I would like to go back and look at the book again with eyes ten years older and see what I see in it now.

On the same bent, I've read War and Peace twice. I liked it the first time. I fell in love with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's new translation. All arguments about literal/though trasnlation aside, it breathed more life into 1200 pages than I ever thought possible.

I see people in book clubs talk about wanting to read "classics" and then giving up within the first 20 pages. Perhaps this is what the aforementioned "pulp" has done to our society's literary conciousness? Or perhaps we just lack the clutural context and history surrounding these great works and thefore just don't care?
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Old 12-07-2010, 08:19 AM   #11
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I would say Pulp is big reason... and the usual... forcing people tor read books in their youth that they should not read till they are much older...for example Tolstoy... which in Russia..quite a few friends of mine did not like because they were forced to read it in secondary school....

Second, many people read for the pulp... just like Hollywood film... such as Dances with Smurfs....3 hours long but less than a centimeter depth...
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Old 12-07-2010, 08:27 AM   #12
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I also feel you cannot underestimate the quality of a translation and understanding the culture the work comes from. A good example - I had never read a line of Japanese literature until I started learning the language. And then I fairly immersed myself in it. Everything from Natsume Soseki to Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto. But if i didn't have the cultural context the language learning gave me, I would never have enjoyed those books as much as I did.
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Old 12-07-2010, 08:36 AM   #13
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Good point...having some idea bout the culture and history helps.... a lot...I would say... Good to know you like Japanese literature..big fan myself.. love Abe Kobo, Endo Shusako, Arioshi Sawako....etc.......

Culturally no problem..have to face it everyday at work...
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Old 12-07-2010, 02:37 PM   #14
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So now I'm starting to wonder if I have to go on a long trip and try to read Moby Dick again.

I don't know that I'd blame pulp for a diminished interest in classics, it seems to me that any interest in reading is a good thing. Despite what school can do to some books I think that it has a place for introducing people to things they'd not otherwise try - and, of course, the right teachers can make all the difference. If you want to blame anything you might look at ebooks. Not so long ago, when you went into a bookshop, you essentially got a choice between what was current and what was classic. With ebooks the cost of "reprinting" drops so much that more books remain "current" and so compete with the classics. Other factors include: time - the older a work the more difficult it tends to be to newer readers; volume - even without ebooks there is simply a larger volume of work competing with (older) classics.
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Old 12-07-2010, 04:45 PM   #15
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I know I don't blame pulps. Many of the books that are considered classics now, were considered pulps in their day -- particularly with 19th century literature. As far as I can tell, what celebrates a pulp from a classic is whether or not a literature professor decides to write articles about it.

Yes some authors are trying to write art and some are trying to make a sale, but authors from both categories have been classified as literature (and indeed up until relatively recently, even the authors who were trying to write art were trying to reach a popular audience as well).

I just find an interesting contrast between two relatively popular art forms.

In writing, literature critics will praise a writer for the style of the writing.

In movies, movie critics will praise an actor who is never caught acting.

I definitely am in the latter category. I can't stand a work where the style of the author gets in the way of the story. Oh right, and I also have no patience for those who believe that story and art can't coexist in a novel.

--
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