Reading the Great White Whale

How about reading Moby Dick this winter?

Call me Ishmael. 

You just read one of the most recognizable first lines in all literature opening one of the most immersive and rewarding reads there is. But what’s the big deal? Why read it? Here’s why. Moby Dick sprawls across the pages, from New Bedford to the South Seas and from a hopeful beginning to a disastrous end. Its language is monumental, springing from the biblical and Shakespearean texts that were Herman Melville’s cultural foundation. Its characters, Ahab, Ishmael, Starbuck, Queequeg, Tashtego, Pip, are fully alive and compelling and, to use an anachronistic word, diverse. The discursive chapters on whales and whaling draw you into
world and way of life that’s lost. The whale itself is a force of nature, both aggressor and aggressed against.

First published in 1851, Herman Melville created Moby Dick out of his own experiences as a sailor in the whale fishery, and on two true stories: the story of the sinking of the whaler Essex in 1820 when it was rammed by a sperm whale, and the story of the albino sperm whale Mocha Dick who legendarily destroyed more than 20 whaling ships off the coast of Chile in the early 19th century. The book was a commercial failure, partly because the British edition left off Ishmael’s Epilogue, leading reviewers to conclude that Melville had written a story narrated by a dead man. Moby Dick sold few copies and was out of print at the time of Melville’s death in 1891. Moby Dick didn’t return to public interest until the 1920s when it was championed by Carl Van Doren and D.H. Lawrence, who once wrote that he wished he’d written it himself. The Lakeside Press edition of 1930, illustrated with woodcuts by Rockwell Kent, helped cement its reputation in the 20th century.

The library stocks print copies of Moby Dick all time. Ebooks are available on our ebook platforms and, because Moby Dick is in the public domain, copies are always available. 

 For audiobook fans, Moby Dick is a great book to listen to. We stock audiobook recordings on CD as well as e-audio versions on Overdrive, Hoopla, and One-Click Digital. You can also immerse yourself in a podcast version produced at Plymouth University in the U.K., their  Big Read project. Each of the 135 chapters has a different reader, some well-known, others not. Listen to the first chapter, Loomings, read by Tilda Swinton then go on to chapters read by the likes of John Waters, Tony Kushner, and Sir David Attenborough, and all the way through to the Epilogue read by poet Mary Oliver.

Numerous filmed adaptations of the book are out there, too, from the classic 1956 version with Gregory Peck as Ahab to a 1930 talkie with John Barrymore, a film that actually gives Ahab a happy ending!

Using OPL’s Hoopla service you can read Moby Dick, listen to audiobook versions, watch the Gregory Peck film or either of two television adaptations.

There’s even an opera based on the book, composed by Jake Heggie. You can enjoy this beautiful adaptation on a DVD of the San Francisco Opera’s 2012 production.

For a different print experience of Moby Dick, try Matt Kish’s Moby Dick in Pictures, with an image for each of the 552 pages in the Signet Classics paperback edition.

You can do it! Chapters are short, though are a lot of them. This enduring story of ambition, obsession and abuse of power continues to speak to us.

Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirgelike main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.

 

 

 

Comments

Moby Dick is undeniably one

Moby Dick is undeniably one of the Great American Novels. I would add two more to the canon. The Last of the Mohicans, and Gone With The Wind.

Moby Dick is a product of 19th century American Transcendentalism. And there's a pronounced transcending universality in its theme.

Nevertheless, I think that The Last of the Mohicans and Gone With the Wind are particularly American in their exposition of just how this country came about.

What do you think?

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