Every once in a while I return to Moby Dick. I’m not sure why exactly Melville’s classic has such a hold on me. Perhaps because I first read it while living in Boston. For a land lubber like myself being so near the ocean was a kind of epiphany. I read the novel as part of a course on wisdom literature in the Bible. Harrell Beck, who was an influential person in my life, insisted that if wisdom themes were truly wisdom they would be found outside the Good Book. We were assigned a list of modern novels from which to choose and I selected Moby Dick. The thing that immediately struck me about the novel was just how biblical it is. Ahab and Ishmael aside, the many references to Jonah and Job and incidental asides referencing scripture made this an intense reading experience.
I started reading it for the fifth or sixth time just before the pandemic became a crisis. It is a large book and I didn’t want to rush through it. I tried to pause and appreciate it this time around and I noticed just how remarkable it was that a man who made much of his life as a laborer, without any higher education, was so incredibly literate. Classical references that I had to look up, and citation of sources blend together in a story that is compelling as it is unsettling. Long explanations and descriptions are part of the tale, and the soliloquies are so philosophical that you have to sit back in a reverie after reading them. I’ve read many novels in my life, but no others like Moby Dick.
As metaphorical stories go, the book is remarkably natural. The descriptions of whales are as scientific in their own way as they are literary. For an author with no scientific training this too is remarkable. Indeed, a good part of the draw of Moby Dick is Herman Melville himself. Although I have gathered a few degrees over the years, in my mind I am, like Melville, unlettered. I’m sure he would’ve understood. The fiction I write, although in a very different style, is a tip of the hat to him. Friends used to tell me that nobody writes like that any more and that no publishers would show an interest. The latter has proven to be true, and so much more’s the pity. We could use more novels like Moby Dick. And were my days not even fuller during the pandemic, I might even have a few moment to pursue my own white whales.