Musings on Moby-Dick

Here’s a little story about me and Moby-Dick. (Since Ahab’s Wife is up next in the Literary Wives series, I thought I should probably have a look at Moby-Dick; it’s been a few years. I’ll be posting about it every once in awhile as I go along.)

Yes, I know this is a Maine lighthouse, but I don't have any recent pictures of harpooned whales or peg-legged ship captains.

Yes, I know this is a Maine lighthouse, but I don’t have any recent pictures of harpooned whales or peg-legged ship captains.

Now, there was a time when I hated Moby-Dick with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. That was when I was about eleven.

You see, my parents were and are big believers in reading aloud. My Mom read aloud to us when we were little, and when she went back to work and Dad started staying home,  he read aloud individually to us until we left for college (though less in high school when extracurriculars took up more of our time). He chose books in consultation with us, so my brother might be listening to Ivanhoe an hour after Dad read “The Twin Brothers” to our younger sister.

It was a delightful tradition. We’d settle into the comfy chairs in the living room, and Dad would read in his perfectly cadenced voice while I listened, sometimes working on whatever craft project I was trying out that week (never with success, I might add). When I was about eleven, we decided to settle in for a challenge: Moby-Dick.

We hated it. We hated the chapter on Cetology and the long philosophical disquisitions and the drawn-out plot. For years we said it would have been a great story if it had been fifty pages, not the 500 of our hardcover version. We hated it so much that eventually we decided to finish it just so we could say we had done it — we had killed Moby-Dick.

To this day, of all the books Dad read to me, it’s the one I remember best, the one we joke about the most often. Dad gave me the Cliffs Notes to the novel as a Christmas present one year, even though I hated the book so much that I avoided any American Lit course that mentioned it in the course description — and I was an English major!

And yet, something in the back of my brain needled me, like a tooth-pick-sized harpoon. What if I hadn’t given it a fair shot? What if I was too young when I read it? Why did other people (including one of my uncles, a brilliant English teacher) like it so much?

So, more than ten years after I’d read the book with my dad, I tried again. And I loved it. Because it’s musical. Because it’s exciting. Because it’s funny.

No, really. It is.

Consider the very first chapter. We all know the famous first three words, but what follows is a riot. Ishmael decides to put to sea not because the ocean calls to his soul (that bit comes later), but because he’s hilariously, hyperbolically depressed:

whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can (3).

See? Told you it was funny. Now if only I could convince my dad.

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7 thoughts on “Musings on Moby-Dick

  1. This is great! I have the same history as you do with Moby Dick (minus my dad reading it to me). I read it during high school and found it tedious, and I too managed to graduate as an English major without ever having touched the book. But I started Ahab’s Wife last night (borrowed it from the library), and really wish that I had *some* memory of Moby Dick. At this point, I don’t have time to read it alongside Ahab’s Wife though I am thinking I might appreciate it a lot more now as an adult. So I’m looking forward to your future musings on Moby Dick 🙂

    • When I first read Ahab’s Wife (forever ago, so I’ve lost most of the detail), I was pretty far from Moby-Dick too, but I still remember enjoying it very much. I hope you will too!

  2. I had a professor tell me how funny it was, and then I read it and was primed to see the humor. My favorite scene is when Ishmael and Queequeg share a bed. I laughed out loud.

  3. Wonderful reminiscence about your early family adventures in reading, Carolyn. It made me smile. 🙂

    I was lucky, I suppose, not to meet the cast and crew of MD until high school, when I had a larger than life AP teacher to share it with. He was a stentorian orator who did indeed capture the musical qualities of the book and read aloud select passages to us often. He so clearly LOVED to book and was so contagious in his enthusiasm, that it was hard not to respond in kind, if only grudgingly. Even though we all laughed and joked about the book, inside I was secretly impressed with something “there” that at 16 I couldn’t articulate but which I could now define as brilliance of craft on many levels. I’ve only read it the one time, but never forgot it. I’m about due for a revisit I suppose — another one to add to the list, right?

    When I read Ahab’s Wife years ago with my book group I was enthralled by it. I’m looking forward to reading your review.

    • Isn’t it great when you find those wonderful teachers! In high school I had one wonderful English teacher and another who did me a world of good by practicing benign neglect, and two who were, shall we say, merely survivable. In college I was lucky to find more teachers like yours!

  4. Pingback: An Eighteenth-Century Gentleman Who Hated Exercise Even More Than I Do | Rosemary and Reading Glasses

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