Sunday, February 17, 2008

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or The Whale

First, a story:

Back when I was an undergrad student in Dr. Gus Kolich's American Literature class at Saint Xavier University, we were assigned to read Moby-Dick during our week of Spring Break. Not being a participant in the usual Malibu Beach spring break tomfoolery, I stayed home, choosing instead to take the train to the Loop and make a solitary visit to the Art Institute of Chicago with sketchbooks and bottled water in my carpetbag ... including my copy of the Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick. Stopping for lunch on a glorious spring afternoon at the McDonald's on Randolph and Dearborn, I read for an hour, whereupon I resumed the rest of my day's excursion.

It wasn't until I returned home that night that I realized -- "Oh no! I left my copy of the book at McDonald's!"

The next morning, hoping for a slim chance of recovering my castaway (what are the chances of finding a lost item in a downtown fast food establishment the next day!?), I returned to the same McDonald's assuming it was a futile effort, but a rescue nonetheless worthwhile. And lo and behold! When I walked in the doors, there lay my very own Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick on the windowside counter, primly awaiting its owner! Apparently NO one was gonna steal that book! LOL

And over the last twenty years or so, I've taught selections of the novel to my American Literature students. Granted, it's not a book that in its entirety goes over well with high school kids ... but in selected chapters, it's a palatable and engaging read.

So when the Biblioholics Anonymous decided to read this novel for their March selection, I jumped at the chance to re-read this book again ... to re-read the whole thing!

More than ever, I am reminded of just what an underrated book this is. Completely panned in Melville's lifetime, and today often viewed by readers (or, should I say, people who haven't read it but merely think they know what it's about) as a stodgey classic that elicits boredom, nothing could be farther from the truth! Moby-Dick is a celebration of one of the most important and forgotten industries of 19th Century America. Encyclopedic in its scope, biblical in its sublimity, subtle in its humor, and engaging in its spinning of a nautical yarn, Melville's masterpiece remains relevant over a century and a half later -- the megalomaniac Captain Ahab has a counterpart in contemporary politics, the Pequod remains a microcosm of American society, and many of narrator Ishmael's philosophical musings either sparkle with meaning or reinforce the ambiguity with which we all must share in our existence. This time through, I noticed some of its politically incorrect observations regarding people of Asian and African-American heritage; I see the intricacy of the chapter ordering, which I'd never noticed before; and the deliberate ambiguity that Melville fosters throughout the narrative in terms of how we should perceive the world around us -- these are the benefits of re-reading a major literary work twenty years later!

Don't let any reductionist tell you: "It's about a crazy guy chasing a whale."

It's so much more ... and it's brilliant!


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