How to Read Moby Dick

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Moby Dick is one of those books that everyone knows about but very few people have actually read—though, for some reason, people feel that they ought to have read it. I wish I could release you, dear reader, from the belief that you ought to read any novel. Read novels because you enjoy them. And if you want to read a book just to be able to say you’ve read it—well, that’s a sophomore’s pleasure at best, and too small a return on the investment required to read a book like Moby Dick.

If you can remember one key truth, you can enjoy this book. Here it is: Moby Dick is a book about whaling.

If you can accept this fact, your chances of being one of the people who finish and actually enjoy reading Moby Dick improve dramatically. People sometimes assume that Moby Dick is really about something else—obsession or predestination or something—and only pretends to be about whaling. As if Melville started with some abstract ideas he wanted to talk about and, casting about for a way to talk about them, landed on whaling. The reader’s job in that case is to decode the whaling language to get to the abstractions.

The pleasures of Moby Dick are more akin to the pleasures of a police procedural like CSI or NYPD Blue. A better comparison, really, would be the Horatio Hornblower books or Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. In each case, the audience is brought into an unfamiliar world and told (in great detail) how things work there. And the story hinges on technicalities: tides, winds, DNA, rules of evidence. I love books and movies that explain how things are done. (“So that’s how you steal a car. . . So that’s how lye soap is made. . .”) That’s what I enjoyed about Moby Dick. When you’ve read that book, you know a lot of what there is to know about every aspect of the whaling business—from the uses of whale oil to the recruitment of whalers to crew politics to the exotic ports to the habits of every species of whale.

The piled-on detail seems oppressive to many readers; it truly is hard to handle. But the story begins to do its work on you when you stop trying to handle it. Moby Dick is not a book to be mastered. It’s a book to burrow into, to accept on its own terms. If you stay with it, its complexities begin to feel like the complexities of the real world. Melville unpacks the subject of whaling so thoroughly that transcendence—the transcendence that inheres in all human endeavor and in the natural world—has nowhere to hide. Which is to say, we get to the abstractions—destiny, obsession, sublimity [fill in your own abstractions here]—but not before we’ve bumped along through the concrete for many miles.

That’s what fiction is good for. It reminds us that there’s something big lurking just below the physical facts of the world we live in, ready at any moment to jump out and get us.

Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we’ve ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


11 Comments

  1. Chris Armstrong

    Please forgive the intrusion, but this post inspired me, and I must respond.

    What you’ve written here gets to the heart of why I think we must all “get medieval.” Medievals kept the sublimely metaphysical (the “universals” that people think they should be looking for in Moby Dick, for example) and the crassly physical together.

    In his Sixteenth-Century Literature, Lewis describes the mindset–simultaneously exalted and earthy–of a medieval boy who started at school, where he would learn “farriery, forestry, archery, hawking, sowing, ditching, thatching, brewing, baking, weaving, and practical astronomy.”

    This practical, concrete knowledge, Lewis says, “mixed with their law, rhetoric, theology, and mythology, bred an outlook very different from our own. High abstractions and rarified artifices jostled the earthiest particulars . . . They talked more readily than we about large universals such as death, change, fortune, friendship, or salvation; but also about pigs, loaves, boots, and boats. The mind darted more easily to and fro between that mental heaven and earth: the cloud of middle generalizations, hanging between the two, was then much smaller. Hence, as it seems to us, both the naivety and the energy of their writing . . . They talk something like angels and something like sailors and stable-boys; never like civil servants or writers of leading articles.” (Sixteenth-Century Literature, 62)

    So when you say “Melville unpacks the subject of whaling so thoroughly that transcendence—the transcendence that inheres in all human endeavor and in the natural world—has nowhere to hide,” you are getting at the fact that we know God only through analogy – through our sense experience – which is the subjective side of the sacramental principle, expressed so well in Lewis’s essay “Transposition.” Medievals realized what we have forgotten – that we receive everything we know about him through our bodies, our senses, our experiences. We have no other way to understand Him. Analogy is more than analogy: it is sacrament; it is “Transposition.” This is the “Way of Affirmation of Images” that Williams taught Lewis so well, and that both in turn learned from medieval Christian tradition.

    If we realize this, then we have a manifesto for writing good literature: *Sense-knowledge is not second-class knowledge.* Lewis expresses this idea memorably in his poem “On Being Human,” which compares the angels’ incorporeal way of knowing with our way – to the advantage of the latter. While angelic minds can directly behold the Platonic forms of things—“pure Earthness and right Stonehood” and the essence of a tree, they cannot know the blessedness of that tree’s shade on a sunny day, for they have no skin or sense of touch. Air they know intellectually, but the smells of “the field new-mown” and “the wood-fire smoke that whispers Rest” escape them, for “an angel has no nose.” The poem concludes: “here, within this tiny, charmed interior, / This parlour of the brain, their Maker shares / With living men some secrets in a privacy / Forever ours, not theirs.”

    Hope this provides another layer of richness to your description of how, and why, to read Moby Dick. And for another experience like this, read Dorothy Sayers’s The Nine Tailors. It will tell, no show, you more than you ever thought it possible to know about campanology–the art and science of bell-ringing.

  2. Dawn

    I’m kinda a lover of sea stories so I just want to plug, “Into the Heart of the Sea” by Nathaniel Philbrick who researched the sinking of the whale ship, Essex. This is the story Melville could not get out of his head. A Sperm Whale actually attacked a ship and sunk it. And all the passion and heart that goes into WHY? was in Moby Dick..but not without the carefully layered lives of whalers.

  3. Cindy Sharp

    “Moby Dick” is one of my favorite books. I don’t really get that excited about whaling, not my cup of tea. However, Melville surprised me with his delightful sense of humor. For that, I love his book.

  4. Drew Zahn

    I actually read “Moby Dick” for the first time when I was 4 years old. No, really. My parents were convinced I was a genius.

    No, I just loved the ocean … and my IQ has rapidly gone downhill ever since.

    But that aside, I love its allegorical/metaphorical themes of the gospel, which you finally understand … on about the last page. Until then, yep, it’s about whaling. In hindsight, though, oh, man! Still one of my favorite books, and one of the few I’ve read more than once (strangely enough, I missed some of the deeper themes when I was 4 – go figure).

  5. David Martin

    Thank you. I tried to read Moby Dick once and gave up, exactly because I wanted to plumb the depths and got bogged down in the details. I’ll have to get back to it some day when I’m in the mood for a good sea yarn. I had a similar same experience with “A Tale Of Two Cities”, but later I read it in a different mood and was blown away by it.

  6. Eowyn

    Moby-Dick was actually the first book I read that I really “got”. About halfway through the book, I suddenly started reading and paying attention to the words, not just the car chases and explosions. I’ve never looked back. But I do know a lot about whaling now…

  7. Cory Martin

    “If you stay with it, its complexities begin to feel like the complexities of the real world.” – Surely, this a worthy goal of creators in any medium.

  8. Hannah

    It was one of the many books my parents read to us either while we did dishes in the evening or (if it was during our few homeschooling years) over lunchtime. I’d seen a short old movie of it in 3rd grade, and this is one of the few instances where I not only saw the movie first but liked it better. Not sighting of Moby Dick till the last chapter or so was part of it, not to mention all the detail on whale oil and monologue on whiteness. I hope I would enjoy it more now if I read it myself and knew what I was getting into.

  9. Rob Collins

    Jonathan,

    Thanks for this word. I’ll admit, I’ve never read it solely because everyone has told me how tedious a read it is. Your words have confirmed this!!! I once read a book entitled ‘Pompeii’ by Robert Harris. I picked up this book because I thought it was about Pompey, the general. Yeah. Obviously it turned out to be about the ancient city. One of the biggest thing I took from the book was an incredible appreciation for ancient aqueducts. The main character in Harris’ book worked on aqueducts and Harris went into detail of their mechanics and science and marvel. I finished the book just as I boarded a plane to Cairo, Egypt for a tour of Egypt and the Holy Land. Where, of course, I saw ancient aqueducts.

    All that to say, I really enjoy talking about aqueducts now, and perhaps, if I can approach Moby Dick with the same appreciation, I’ll enjoy talking about Whaling.

    Also, I believe Moby Dick would be a pretty cool inspiration for a carving.

  10. April Pickle

    O for grace and courage to run to the “physical facts” rather than away from them.
    Thank you for this, Dr. Rogers. You’re my hero, you know.

  11. Justin

    Currently working through my first time with Moby Dick. My wife asked me what it was about the other night and my response was, “Whaling”. As I’ve dug in I’m glad to see that someone else shares my thoughts on this. It really is all about whaling. There may be obsession, but if you are reading it for the author’s thoughts on that or some other issue, the bulk of the whale will quickly drag you under! Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this.

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