Saturday, January 21, 2012

Book Review: "Why Read Moby-Dick?"

Nathaniel Philbrick's Why Read Moby-Dick? (Viking, 2010), at just 130 generously-spaced pages, makes for a very quick, but very enjoyable introduction to Melville's great novel. As Philbrick notes, the Moby-Dick can be a bit intimidating to start or to persevere with; with this little book he encourages a fresh look.

I've read Moby-Dick several times, but most recently about nine years ago, and Philbrick's book made me want to dive right back in again. I found myself nodding emphatically on page 8, when he calls the book "too long and too digressive to be properly appreciated by a sleep-deprived adolescent, particularly in this age of digital distractions." Moby-Dick is a book which makes great demands of its readers, both in time and attention. And that's not a bad thing. I certainly wish I had more time to hunker down with books like that, and I've been making a conscious effort to do so.

Philbrick's short chapters examine various aspects of the book itself, but also the context of Melville's life as he was writing, and his own personal reading and experiences which shaped the novel (he argues, for example, that without reading the letters Melville was sending as he was working on the book, it's difficult to understand the final product). He explores Melville's use of language, and his unconventional, even unique experiments with genre, style and plot. And he's pulled out some of the best quotes from the novel, highlighting Melville's sense of humor, his ability to set a scene, and to build up a head of literary tension.

Even if you don't agree with all of Philbrick's particular interpretations of the novels events and themes, this little book will at least make you think about Melville's novel in a new light, and maybe, just maybe, you'll reach over and pluck that copy off your bookshelf and read a chapter or two. It's going to snow this afternoon ... I think I may do just that.


EraserGirl said...

someone just gave me the most beautiful red leather slipcased copy of Moby Dick that i have ever held. It feels like a bible in my hands. I think i have 4 copies in house at the moment. Everyone should own one.

JBD said...

Agreed - I've got at least two ...