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    A Book Snob Recommends

    by Jasna - 3 Comment(s)

    I am conflicted. I believe Why Read Moby Dick? By Nathaniel Philbrick is an important book that everyone over the age of eighteen should read, but it is also a book that I wish was better than it is.

    In my opinion Moby Dick is the most important novel ever written, but I have always had difficulty explaining why I feel this way. I am grateful to Philbrick for elegantly arguing that the novel transcends the time it was written in and has relevancy, even urgency, to those us living one hundred and sixty years after its original publication. This alone makes me recommend it, although I still do not feel completely satisfied. I do not think Philbrick is convincing enough that a non-believer would be won over. Since the only people I know who want to read this book have already read Moby Dick – and loved it – it makes me think perhaps he was right to adopt a “preaching to the choir” approach, but I still wish it reached out more to the unconverted. I also found the book to be a compilation of unrelated points rather than an artful construction where each point supports a central argument.

    While I greatly enjoyed the passages about Melville’s friendship with Nathanial Hawthorne, I don’t see how they strengthen the argument Moby Dick is a great book. On the one hand he writes (correctly, I think) that Melville’s genius was having the prescience to create a novel that would become more relevant with the passing of time. Exactly! Why then does he spend so much time discussing the historical context the novel was written in? To repeat: Moby Dick transcends the Nineteenth Century and its many messages are more important in 2011 than they were in 1851. So less about what some editor in New York in 1851 had to say and more about what a cab driver in Calgary in 2011 can learn from the book.

    Philbrick also makes the common mistake of portraying Moby Dick as The Great American Novel. Moby Dick is so much more than that! It’s not only about America but all humankind – the relationship of all humanity to God and Nature - and it needs to be read by all of us who are the crew of this fragile boat called Earth.

    In short, Philbrick did not go far enough.

    Ultimately, for all its universality, Moby Dick is a book that speaks to its readers individually. By reading Why Read Moby Dick I learned what the novel has to say to Nathaniel Philbrick, and while some of it overlaps with my own experience of the book, it may or may not have anything to do with what Moby Dick has to say to you.

    So, should you read Why Read Moby Dick? Yes, you should. But it’s even more important that you read Moby Dick.

    Tyler Jones


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    by Trix
    I'm impressed! You've mnagead the almost impossible.
    by Tyler
    I see two very separate questions ("What are my reasons for liking Moby Dick so much?" and "Why is it the greatest book ever?") in your comment and both would require so much time and energy to answer that there is no possible way I can give a full and thoughtful reply in the limited space and time I have available to me. I will give you a couple of short points I hope will suffice, otherwise all I could do is write a book similar to the one Philbrick has written, filled with my own observations and personal accounts. If you are really interested in answering the questions you ask, I really recommend you read the Philbrick. It is short and there are no long and boring passages of whale-skull-drilling in it. I am flattered that you are interested in my personal opinion but the reasons I stayed up late every night for three weeks (I am a slow reader) devouring the book really shouldn't matter to you because I am convinced the large scope of the book will allow each reader to find different things compelling. I can't think of a book that better describes the complex relation a human being has with both his society and with nature, but more importantly, I think, is that Melville invented a neo-biblical style mixed with alternating hyper-realism and a proto-stream-of-consciousness that were decades ahead of Joyce and Faulkner, not to mention Cormac McCarthy (Whom it is rumored reads Moby Dick once a year.) So here is one concrete point - the novel was stylistically groundbreaking and would influence generations of writers to come. You speak of the long dry boring passages. Many people have said that about the chapters in which the mythology and the naming of all the different whale types goes on and on. "I've had enough!" they, like you, cry and throw the book across the room. My theory, and it is a pretty wacky theory, is that you get out of a book what you put into it. That is why, I believe, Melville included the passages that are "hard slogging" as well as the fun, narrative, this-happened-then-this-happened bits. He wished to exercise his readers "attention muscles" so that you (yes YOU!) could get the most out of the book. He put those passages in there to help make us better readers - readers who could then bring our heightened attention to bear on the most important passages. One very good point Philbrick makes is that even though Melville was a successful writer when he wrote Moby Dick, it wasn't until that point in his life (age thirty-five) that he first read the classics - Milton and Virgil and Shakespeare. The point is that it is sometimes wise not to read a book until one has sufficient life experience to understand it. I hope this doesn't sound like an insult - I really don't intend it to be- but not knowing your background it makes it difficult to say whether or not you are ready to read the book. I was thirty when I first read Moby Dick. Had I tried to read it when I was eighteen I probably would have said "I've had enough!" and flung the book across the room. So perhaps, while everyone should read Moby Dick, they should wait until the time is right for them to do it. Ultimately, though, the books main message is that Humankind, no matter what technology we have developed, can never assume ourselves to be outside the laws of nature. That when we think ourselves above nature we bring destruction down on our own heads. One could read the novel as the first great warning of environmentalism - even though the word didn’t exist in Melville's time. But that's just what I think.
    by Al
    What are your reasons for liking "Moby Dick" so much? After about 60 pages of drilling into whale skulls for precious oils, I'd had enough! Beyond a great first line, an interracial friendship that was beyond it's time, and a pretty good man vs. animal grudge, there's not much of an argument for this being the greatest book ever! DETAILS!

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