Call me Underwhelmed

I have been on something of a mission to make sure I have read most of the books that are considered “great”. When I say this, I don’t mean books that have appeared on New York Times Bestseller Lists or Oprah’s Book Club but simply books that have stood the test of time. Books that people of many stripes tend to agree are great works of literature. Most of the time, this is really a good way to go¬† about reading but sometimes it isn’t. Catcher in the Rye being a perfect example of the latter. Now if you’ve not gathered by the post title, the book I’ve most recently crossed off the classics list is Moby-Dick.

Finishing this book I will admit was something of a challenge. I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed reading it. At the same time, I am still glad I did and I should stress that I don’t think it is in any way a bad book. I am not one of those people that wants to be contrary and say something most people think is brilliant is actually awful. And unlike Catcher in the Rye, I can fully appreciate how and why this book became a classic. I certainly think people will still be saying so in a century or more.

I suppose I could compare it with my experience with The Count of Monte Cristo. Both are comparably lengthy novels and both have what you are really waiting for right at the end. Indeed, the titular whale doesn’t actually appear until the very last pages of the book. A great deal of the story is tied up in the nature of whaling with the narrator frequently breaking into asides to describe one thing or another. Usually descriptions of the mundane actually interest me and in Moby-Dick they are legion. Sometimes I did find them interesting and I was fascinated and engrossed when they finally killed their first whale, but most of the time I found myself wishing the narrator would keep his literary ship on course. This was so much so that I found myself wishing I had found an abridged version which is unusual as my reading choices go.

One thing I can’t fault is Melville’s mastery of the English language. If I could write one sentence in a paragraph as as well as he writes every sentence in a paragraph, I fancy I could become a published author myself. The climax of the story is certainly a highlight and though I was well-aware of what would happen, it was still exciting to read the doomed battle between Ahab and the whale for myself. The author seems to have taken a great deal of care and joy with each page he wrote. The historian in me can also appreciate how useful his descriptions of whaling at the time would be and in between readings, I found myself looking up 19th century whaling, spermaceti and Nantucket. It is testament to the books legacy that I was familiar by cultural osmosis with so much of it from the opening line through to the ending.

It was also quite amusing at times such as in the beginning with the sleeping arrangements of Queequeg and Ishmael where the narrator found himself in bed with a large savage with a giant harpoon. There was also an entertaining back and forth between a whaler and the cook about the best way to cook whale after the ships first kill. In one of the many asides the narrator dismisses the idea of the sperm whale being hunted to extinction. It is worth observing that over 150 years later, they are still very much with us. Though if not for kerosene and later electric lighting, it is possible Ishmael could have been mistaken.

So having discussed all I enjoyed, I come back again to what I didn’t. This is simply the plodding pace of the novel. I found it very hard to keep focus and read the last fifty odd pages in one sitting just to be done with it. I half wonder if I just chose the wrong time to read it – if my mind just wasn’t in the mood for such a novel but I don’t think that’s the case. As with the comparison with The Count of Monte Cristo, I could see myself reading it again one day but I really doubt I’ll ever pick up Moby-Dick again.

I’m glad I finally read it and I would certainly recommend it to anyone curious but it just wasn’t my kind of novel. I am certainly underwhelmed because I opened the book expecting to both appreciate and enjoy it. Except for the few examples above, I can only say I did the former.

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