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.