A week or two ago Sally Apokedak wrote a blog post about having a healthy reading diet. She asked what one weighty book her readers would recommend. I chose Moby Dick. Here’s why.
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.

42 Comments
  • JJ
    1:28 PM, 28 April 2011

    Moby Dick is on my to read list this year. I’ve been trying to catch up on some classics that I think I should at least try to read. I’ve read a few so far this year and enjoyed them greatly (Dracula and the 3 of the 4 Sherlock Holmes novels). I have them on my list so I can say I haven’t missed anything. I didn’t read much growing up. It’s improved greatly in the last 5 years (thanks to my wife), but I missed a lot in my first 30 years. I didn’t even read The Lord of the Rings until the movies came out, and I didn’t read all of the Narnia books until a few years ago. That’s sad.

  • BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck
    2:26 PM, 28 April 2011

    Ugh.

  • BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck
    2:27 PM, 28 April 2011

    Did you see the Melville limerick?

  • BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck
    2:30 PM, 28 April 2011

    (P.S. That’s not a critical, “Ugh.” I was just wondering if I’d been caught. Also, too many comments from me in a row! I’m sorry!)

  • Jess
    2:40 PM, 28 April 2011

    Hear hear! Although this doesn’t really have anything to do with what you were talking about, my favorite passage as of now from Moby Dick is just a few sentences in:
    “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; 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 stree, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

    It reminds me of Fin Button, and, perhaps more importantly, of myself…

  • Jess
    2:53 PM, 28 April 2011

    stepping into the street* Es tut mir leid.

  • Loren
    3:34 PM, 28 April 2011

    I saw the title of this blog and though, “No, no…really, no, I *don’t* want to read Moby Dick, thank you!” But you have convinced me that there is another way to look at it.
    My husband and I were just talking last night about what it is that grabs us in books these days, and it’s the books that have slow development, lots of deep character building and relationships, and details. I probably won’t jump on it right now, but I have a feeling Kraig would thoroughly enjoy it!

  • JJ
    4:36 PM, 28 April 2011

    Loren: That’s precisely the reason I’m having a hard time getting through Dune. We get not only the conversations of the characters, but their thoughts, as well as extremely detailed descriptions of the environment the characters are currently in and what everyone is doing. It’s almost too much detail and, for me anyway, makes it hard to get through.

  • Jonathan Rogers
    4:58 PM, 28 April 2011

    Loren, have you read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Home? If you appreciate slow development and deep character building, those would be just the thing. I absolutely love them, but I often hear the complaint that they’re too slow. Like my blog.
    Jess, I love that passage too. I think it’s in that same neighborhood that Melville describes some revelers as “capering about most obstreperously.”

    JJ, don’t beat yourself up about what you haven’t read. I have one rule about reading: Read what you want to read. I probably have others, but that’s the one that comes to mind at the moment.

    BuckBuck, tell us about the Melville limerick. I don’t know the one to which you refer.

  • Jess
    5:32 PM, 28 April 2011

    I have an exception to Mr. Rogers’ rule. If someone offers you $50 to read a book that you don’t want to read, it would be smart to read it. Just in case that ever happens to you and you are confused as to whether you should follow the rule or not. 😉

  • BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck
    5:45 PM, 28 April 2011

    This week on FB, I wrote three “least-favorite-authors” limerick riddles. Melville made my list. It was supposed to be a series of five, but after I read this post, I grew ashamed and erased them all! Haha!

  • BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck
    5:49 PM, 28 April 2011

    P.S. Dickinson is out of the question. But because Jonathan Rogers says so, I’m willing to reconsider Melville.

  • Melinda Speece
    5:51 PM, 28 April 2011

    And there is this (if you are too intimidated to jump right in or if you like pictures or if you are a six-year-old—and both your parents were English majors and just love the classics):
    http://www.amazon.com/Moby-Dick-Herman-Melville/dp/0763630187

  • Jonathan Rogers
    6:01 PM, 28 April 2011

    Melinda, I love the review for that Moby Dick picture book that gives it one star and says, “Abridged! Not the real thing! If you want the real Moby Dick, go elsewhere!” Just in case the unwary buyer thought the real Moby Dick was a picture book. Sometimes I’m painfully aware of the fact that writing reviews is a lot easier than writing books; I try to remember this fact any time I’m tempted to say something negative about an author’s work. (Haikus, by the way, are even easier than reviews).
    BuckBuck, I’m sure the limericks were brilliant. Are you sure you should have deleted them?

  • Patrick
    6:08 PM, 28 April 2011

    Jess, If I read Moby Dick would you pay me $50? Monetary intensive is the only way I can see myself reading it. College destroyed any desire to consider what I should or ought to read, and as intriguing as Jonathan’s description is it would surely bore me to death. I will stick with Jonathan’s reading rule, unless someone offers me at-least $50. 😉

  • BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck
    6:21 PM, 28 April 2011

    I saved them in a draft folder. See if you can figure out this one. It’s not Melville.
    It takes fifteen pages of prose,
    for each new man to blow out his nose.
    His flatulent scrawling
    twists the dial to appalling,
    “Tragic error!” we shout as he goes.

  • Jonathan Rogers
    6:23 PM, 28 April 2011

    Let’s investigate this more closely, Patrick. My edition of Moby Dick is 575 pages long. People read at different speeds, but for a book like this one, I think you would have to assume it would take at least 2 minutes per page to read. That puts us at 1150 minutes, or 19 hours to read the book (not counting breaks…but you’re not getting paid to take breaks anyway). So if Jess pays you $50 to read Moby Dick (by the way, Jess, thanks for this very kind offer–this is online community-building at its best), you’re looking at $2.63 an hour, or about 1/3 of minimum wage.

  • BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck
    6:29 PM, 28 April 2011

    Hahahaa. As I was writing, my eleven-year-old walked into the room with the strangest, happy look on her face.
    Me: “What’s wrong?”

    Daughter: “I just finished Charlatan’s Boy.”

    Me: “Are you OK?”

    Daughter: “I had NO IDEA it was going to end like that! He totally got me.”

    Way to go, JR!

  • Jonathan Rogers
    6:45 PM, 28 April 2011

    Hooraw for your eleven-year-old, BuckBuck. Signs of literary taste in America’s youth are always encouraging.
    I’m pondering your limeriddle in my heart. Obviously you’re talking about an author who is male and who is known for prolixity, but that still leaves a whole lot of candidates (which is to say, we’ve eliminated women and Hemingway, but almost everybody else is still in the running). I imagine “tragic error” is a clue, but I don’t think you’re talking about Sophocles, and even Google has been no help. So my guess is going to be Nabokov, though I’ll be a little sad if Nabokov is among your bottom 3 authors.

  • Jonathan Rogers
    6:48 PM, 28 April 2011

    “Twist the dial,” you say. The verbose Dickens wrote Oliver Twist. But surely–surely–Dickens isn’t in your bottom 3.

  • Dan R.
    7:29 PM, 28 April 2011

    I find myself in the happy, satisfied place of still not wanting to read Moby Dick that badly. I’m glad there is a way to read it that makes you less likely to hate every minute, but at this point it still doesn’t appeal to me enough to make me pick it up and start reading. This is probably related to the fact that I am, and have been for about as long as I can remember, somewhat of a professional student. For this reason, being immersed in a world which I know next-to-nothing about and trying to enjoy the experience is, I think, a little too much like everything else I would be reading instead of doing.
    And I certainly don’t mean to denigrate everyone’s enjoyment of it. I appreciate that you appreciate this, and hopefully some day I will be able to appreciate it myself as well (all the more now that I know more about how best to approach it) 😉

  • Pete Peterswon
    7:31 PM, 28 April 2011

    Can I just say that the thing I love most about Moby Dick is all the whaling description? I could take Ahab, Queequeg, and Ishmael or leave them, but I could read all that fascinating stuff about cutting off whales’ heads and swimming around inside them all day long.

  • JJ
    7:55 PM, 28 April 2011

    I definitely don’t beat myself up about it, but I want to broaden the scope of what I do read. Last year, for example, I read almost all young adult fiction. By the time I finished the Hunger Games trilogy at the end of the Summer, I was burned out and hardly read anything else the rest of the year. So I’m trying to alternate between classics, modern classics (like Dune and Stephen King’s Dark Tower series) and modern/current books, like your own Jonathan, or Andrew and Pete Peterson’s books among others. I find that it’s helping me to keep going and not get burned out on any one type of book. I’ve read 10 books so far this year and it’s a pretty wide variety of books.
    All that to say, I read what I want to read, but I’m trying not to get burned out with any one type of book so I don’t stop reading completely.

  • sally apokedak
    7:55 PM, 28 April 2011

    I didn’t do the math, but when you commented on my blog about Moby Dick, I thought, “If Rogers wants me to spend twenty hours on a book, he’s going to have to do a bit more to convince me than to tell me it’s a book about whaling.
    So in this post you did a bit more and I still don’t think I’ll like the book. And I wonder now if it might be a boy/girl thing. I’ve read that boys love to read about how things work. Boys seem to enjoy encyclopedias. I don’t know any girls who like to read the encyclopedia. Girls are into relationship and emotion. But I’ve known a lot of boys who love encyclopedias.

    OK, I guess that’s not a very popular opinion these days. And I understand that there’s a lot of overlap. But I do believe that girls, in general, tend to like Pride and Prejudice better than Moby Dick. (Girls also tend to like smileys more than boys. It’s true.)

    And yet you see Gilead as a book with deep character building (and you say nothing about it showing how things work). So maybe my theories are just the rantings of a crazy woman.

    But wait…I can’t really remember the book all that well. I can remember my frustration with Ames. I can remember very clearly why I was so angry at the end of the book after I’d invested my time only to have him fail to do in the end the thing I thought he should have done. But I can’t remember the book as a whole. So I’m asking…Is it possible that Gilead was about a man who was trying to tell his son how life and love and friendship and family worked? Instead of actually interacting with people and having relationships, was he talking about how relationships worked?

    Maybe there is something to my theory, after all.

    Or maybe I’m just too shallow to enjoy fine literature.

    But I can enjoy this blog. No, it is not slow. It’s hopping, man. Consider your audience. You have Bluck Bluck on one end of the scale and you have Aaron Roughton on the other end….ha ha, I’m kidding. You have me on the other end of the scale, I just couldn’t resist jabbing at Aaron since he’s been so quiet lately. So, where was I? you have Bluck Bluck on one end and me on the other and somehow you are able to make us both happy. That’s an incredible feat.

    Well done, Dr. Rogers.

  • sally apokedak
    7:58 PM, 28 April 2011

    Oops. She’s BuckBuck, not Bluck Bluck. Sorry. I have a character named Bluck Bluck in the first novel I wrote.

  • Jonathan Rogers
    8:22 PM, 28 April 2011

    Sally, I think you’re right that boys like stories about how things work more than girls do. In my formative years I used to pore over a set of animal encyclopedias for hours on end. I probably like Horatio Hornblower more than you do (though there’d plenty for you to like if you haven’t read those stories). I like Gilead for entirely different reasons, though. And you’ve gotten me to thinking, if I made a checklist of what I like in a novel, Gilead might not score so well…and yet it’s one of my two or three favorite novels. (I’m not sure the other novels in the top 2 or 3 would do so well on the checklist either). As Woody Allen said, the heart wants what it wants. When something resonates with you, the checklist goes out the window.
    As for the blog being slow, I was speaking in strictly technical terms. When I asked for feedback in the previous post, several people mentioned that this blog is slow to load. I wasn’t poor-mouthing. I agree that this is a happening blog, thanks in large part to a very engaged and smart readership.

    From what I understand, Aaron has gone quiet because he got himself a more taxing (and fulfilling) job. Poor guy.

  • Aaron Roughton
    8:33 PM, 28 April 2011

    No time for Moby Dick. Spend spare time skimming Jonathan-Rogers.com for people jabbing me. Taking names. Back to work.

  • Jess
    10:36 PM, 28 April 2011

    If someone paid me $50 to read a book, I would give that $50 to you, Patrick, so that you would read Moby Dick. Just because I am a kid and I have more time to spend reading so I don’t really need $50 to motivate me, and because Moby Dick is awesome (and I’ve only read half). Though the thing that draws ME in is the sea/ship aspect, so if you don’t want to know about whales and you don’t care about sailing ships on the sea, then maybe it really isn’t for you. 😉 Anyway, all this to say that I don’t have $50. I’m really, seriously penniless. Maybe I should do some sort of lemonade stand, “All profits go to getting Patrick to read Moby Dick, but only if I earn $50.”

  • BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck
    11:01 PM, 28 April 2011

    No. Not Nabokov. Not Dickens. (I love Dickens! Shame on you.)
    Bluck Bluck is my evil twin.

  • Charles Atkinson
    11:45 PM, 28 April 2011

    “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.” – truth!
    I knew J.R.R. Tolkien would resonate with this, so after a bit of Internet rummaging, I came across a poem of his (recited by Bilbo in Rivendell) which starts with abstraction and ends with concrete because even in the midst of a good ‘think’, we will never extinguish the desire for the concrete.

    Bilbo’s Song in Rivendell by J.R.R. Tolkien

    I sit beside the fire and think
    I sit beside the fire and think
    Of all that I have seen
    Of meadow flowers and butterflies
    In summers that have been

    Of yellow leaves and gossamer
    In autumns that there were
    With morning mist and silver sun
    And wind upon my hair

    I sit beside the fire and think
    Of how the world will be
    When winter comes without a spring
    That I shall ever see

    For still there are so many things
    That I have never seen
    In every wood in every spring
    There is a different green

    I sit beside the fire and think
    Of people long ago
    And people that will see a world
    That I shall never know

    But all the while I sit and think
    Of times there were before
    I listen for returning feet
    And voices at the door

  • Fellow Traveler
    12:20 AM, 29 April 2011

    I really like the idea about an edit button. I wish a lot more blogs had it. Or how about a “You have half an hour to edit this post” so that you have enough time to catch misprints but (if Jonathan prefers), not unlimited time.

  • Loren
    2:38 AM, 29 April 2011

    Like, like, like!!! (Oh wait, I’m not on facebook….) 🙂
    Sally, I think you and I probably have the same reading lists! I like to pretend I’m an academic, but when push comes to shove, I’ll choose Austen over Melville any day. But if JR can convince me that _Moby Dick_ can actually be read for fun rather than dissected in a lit class, then I might just go for it…. Except I prefer happy endings; well done happy endings, not contrived ones, that is.

    Jonathan, I’ll check out _Gilead and Home_. I wonder if I like the slower novels these days because I can put them down and pick them up more easily (a requirement with rugrats under foot). But I do like it when I feel I really know the characters and situations after reading rather than the cheated feeling I get when rushed through some action/adventure. One qualifier (and this probably goes with Sally’s point about women’s vs. men’s reading tastes), while my husband loved the O’Brien books, I couldn’t even get through the first one. Too much ship stuff! (So maybe I won’t like _Moby Dick_ after all…though that cutting off whales’ heads parts sounds revoltingly intriguing….).

  • Loren
    2:45 AM, 29 April 2011

    Oh, and Patrick–that $50 incentive. My dad rewarded (monetarily) my sisters and me for reading through the Bible in a year two years in a row. Best money ever spent, in my opinion!
    BuckBuck, when do we get to find out the name of this flatulent scrawling author?

  • Canaan Bound
    2:48 AM, 29 April 2011

    Aaron Roughton, we’ve missed you around here. (We meaning me.)
    BeckBeck, I’m positively stumped by your riddle. Aren’t you willing to give at least one more clue?

  • BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck
    3:02 AM, 29 April 2011

    Sally, I’m with you on _Moby Dick._ In fact, I almost posted earlier, “This is such a guy book!” earlier, but I chickened out.
    I’m the sort of girl who can pinch an earthworm in half with her thumbnail before threading it on a fishing hook. I can skin a squirrel, and I can load a shotgun. Still, I couldn’t relate to MD. I think it’s the guy book of guy books.

    Haha. I just asked my husband if he’d ever read it. He said yes, and that he loved it. Goofy boys.

    Loren, you have to guess! No freebies.

  • BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck
    3:04 AM, 29 April 2011

    One teeny hint, though. He was a contemporary of Thomas Hardy.

  • BuckBuck the Nordic Wonderduck
    3:05 AM, 29 April 2011

    Blast. “Earlier” twice in once sentence. Went back to edit and forgot to delete one. Sorry. That looks dumb.
    What about an “edit” and a “like” button when you are revising your blog, JR?

  • Charles Atkinson
    3:23 AM, 29 April 2011

    BB-the-NW: Great idea about adding “edit” and “like” buttons!

  • Jess
    3:04 PM, 29 April 2011

    I suddenly feel very boy-ish. Am I the only girl who likes all these so-called “guy books”? And I don’t even skin squirrels… 😉 Next minute all the girls on this blog are going to be saying they don’t like Robinson Crusoe.

  • Loren
    3:15 PM, 29 April 2011

    No fear, Jess! I liked _Robinson Crusoe_ (not absolutely fascinated, but it was a definite like 🙂 ).
    Okay, BuckBuck, I’ve been researching extensively (okay, maybe not… I googled Thomas Hardy contemporaries, found a list, and then used Wikipedia to review some of the authors. From there I eliminated the ones I liked 🙂 and the ones I vaguely remember you might have mentioned liking. How’s that for a scientific approach?!)

    So anyway, my guess is Henry James (though I’ve only read _Turn of the Screw_)…. And if I’m wrong I won’t run through the rest of the list of possibles, ’cause that seems like cheating!

  • Becca
    7:11 PM, 1 May 2011

    I’m having identity issues. I meant to change to “Becca,” but the new system revealed my Clark Kent!

  • Anonymous
    9:03 PM, 1 May 2011

    Melinda, glad you posted that link -when I was in elementary school I had a great fondness for my “Children’s Illustrated Classics” edition of Moby Dick. I often forget that I haven’t read the real thing, since the major plot points are so fixed in my mind. It even had great illustrations, including the one of the sailor falling into the whale’s head. Gross.(Also, now that I’ve figured out how to sort these comments by oldest first, this whole discussion makes much more sense. Phew.)

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