Why every writer should read Moby Dick, and some handy tips about how to enjoy getting through the whole thing.

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I started Moby Dick three or four times before I actually finished it.  That was in 2014, and since then, I’ve had this strange sort of longing for it, sort of like how, early on, Ishmael describes his longing for being on the water. I’ve never read another book that feels so much like an experience to read, and I think it’s an experience all writers can benefit from. [I would say all people, but I don’t like to take my generalizations too far–I’m a writer, so I’ll just stick to speaking for that section of the population.]  I’m about 2/3 way through my second read and it’s better the second time, but you only need to read it once to be in the “Yeah, I’ve read Moby Dick,” club.

Why Read Moby Dick:

  1. Because it’s bold. Melville takes formulaic risks here that still read as courageous, even 160 years after it was published, even after post modernism. It’s amazing that anyone published this beast at all, and the fact that it will probably be read for all time could give writers a kind of boost to break the rules, to take readers in uncomfortable, stylistically forbidden places. No matter what we do, we probably won’t do anything as wacky as what Melville does in this book. So we might as well just try out whatever strange idea comes to us.image1 (2)
  2. Because it flopped when it came out. It’s like the “Starry Night” of literature, a reminder that you have to write honestly from your gut, write what you care about, and risk scathing criticism. It’s a 138 (including the preludes and epilogue) part reminder that fortune is not guaranteed, but we have to write what we believe in anyway.
  3. Because it’s a masterpiece. Now, I’m not really a big believer in “the canon,” and I get how we need to stop letting the white supremacist patriarchy tell us what’s good to read. Even so, part of why this is a masterpiece is because of its ahead-of-its-time critique of white supremacy/empire.  Sure, there are some times Melville’s 1851 white male POV is showing, but for the most part, he challenges and deconstructs power a century before Derrida and Foucault ever thought to. So read this alongside your Toni Morrison novels and you might find out that they’re dialoguing more than you’d have predicted.

How to Read Moby Dick:

  1. Slowly. This novel is like a 500 page + Lydia Davis flash story, and every sentence needs to be savored as much as possible. Don’t pick this up and say, “I’ll give myself two weeks.” I think the best idea is to read it a chapter a day, which means, give yourself months. Read it while you’re reading other things. The faster you read, the more you’ll miss. And if you miss the wordplay and fascinating sentence construction, you’ve missed 95% of what’s good about it.
  2. Underline sentences that you’ll copy by hand later, and you’ll improve your ability to write a good sentence.
  3. Remember that it’s funny.  It’s best read in a playful state of mind.
  4. There’s a lot of wisdom in this novel. Melville’s love and fascination for humans is apparent, and looking for it enhances the reading experience. It’s a spiritual text, delving into the deepest questions of why our lives are the way they are, who’s running things, and what motivates humans to do the things that they do.
  5. Trust the form. I’m not going to lie and say that this book is never tedious. It’s a book about whaling, and in many ways recreates both the boredom and excitement of being at sea. The form is useful because it makes reading the book a meditative practice. You’ll need to concentrate as hard as if you’re writing, and trust me, anything that builds concentration is handy for writers, especially writers of longer works.

 

 

Or the Whale

mobydickIt is not a coincidence that I finished Moby Dick (FINALLY) on a day when I began my day reaching for my phone and reading this. (I don’t recommend reaching for the phone while still in bed, by the way, but it’s just how this day began). I read that Daily Beast article and thought, Melville.

I am not really a Dave Ramsey person (I have reasons), but many of my friends are and his ideas have done them good, as far as they witness.  I am not even sure there is any truth to this Daily Beast article, but the idea behind the story, like the idea I read behind Moby Dick, is just true, yo.

Never have I come across a book that drew such strong reactions from people. “You’re reading Moby Dick? My sister had to read that and she said it was torture,” was, in its essence, a common response when people realized what I was reading. Though I’d attempted to read it about four times, two of those times making it past the first 100 pages but then losing interest as soon as Melville started to describe the ship, I only just made it all the way through. It took me five months.*

I started it after I had to teach “Bartleby the Scrivener” to a literature class for college sophomores. I knew that the story was in some way a response to Melville’s experience with Moby Dick. I loved that story so much—its language, its mantra (“I’d prefer not to…” how true so much of the time!)—that I thought, okay, I’d better read Moby Dick now.

Again, I read this book slowly. Each chapter was like reading philosophy, not only because there is a ton of philosophy on its pages, but because the language is thick. I am not going to say I don’t understand it when people say they hate this book. It was the most difficult book I’ve ever read and the idea that high schools would assign it as summer reading material is just super crazy. But I will say that it’s sad to hear people say that they hate it, because this book is amazing. And important.

Not only is it difficult because of the language, which, at times, resembles Shakespeare in its depth and beauty; it’s difficult because of what it reveals about the impact of imperial power upon humans.

(The ship! The hearse! The second hearse!” cried Ahab from the boat; “its wood could only be American!”)

I am amazed at how well the book diagnoses the sickness of wealth and power; some call it “worldly ambition.” Of COURSE it would be unpopular; it brings the hardest truth about humanity into light: that this kind of (monomaniacal) power corrupts.   It is a sickness that all artists (and non-artists, like Dave Ramsey) battle all of the time. We want our work to bring us recognition, fame, glory—all the things that I believe Moby Dick represents. This empirical (significantly white) whale is what filmmakers call the MacGuffin. If we just have that thing, then all of our problems will go away (that book publication, that good review, that tour, that Pulitzer). Of course someone who reveals this uncomfortable truth in such a masterpiece would die poor and unpopular. Of course.

(“Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief.”)

As a writer, I often ask myself if it would be better to write like Melville or to be famous and loved but forgotten? Is it better to produce the masterpiece and live poorly? Is it better to have little light while living but to leave the world (in book form) a light that will never go out?

Regardless, Moby Dick demands a reevaluation of how we live and decide what is important. Why do we want what we want? Does this thirst overpower our ability to interact with others, to acknowledge other people at all? Reading Moby Dick is a complex journey into our own darkness.