Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Book Review - Why read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick

Why read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick

New York : Viking, 2011                        ISBN 9780670022991

Moby-Dick usually figures prominently in most lists of greatest ever works of fiction. I am not one to complain about that - in my opinion it is certainly a contender for top spot on any such list. Like Nathaniel Philbrick, I have read it about a dozen times (I have read some, if not all of it, every year since 1986), and it never fails to give me something new each time I dip into it.

Nathaniel Philbrick, an author well known for his sea stories (In the heart of the sea, about the sinking of the Essex, is his best known work, and a vital source for Moby-Dick as well), has written a short impassioned plea to readers, who may be intimidated by the bulk and mythology that surrounds Melville's greatest work, to dive in and be subsumed by that greatness.

In this very short (127 pages in a smaller format book) account, Philbrick ranges not only over the narrative of the work itself, with insights into the characters of Ahab, Ishmael, Starbuck and Queequeg, of Nantucket and the whaling industry, but also the "rag and bone shop" nature of the book,  the circumstances of Melville's authorship and reflections on the stresses in American society at the time that are reflected in the text.

Philbrick explains quite clearly how the work reflects upon the stain of slavery that had befallen the America of Melville's time (Moby-Dick was written more than a decade before the beginning of the American Civil War). The micro-cosmos of the whaling ship as an image of the questing, democratic nature of society is mentioned, as is the ability of a demogogue such as Ahab to bewitch his public and take them on a voyage to tragedy.

What comes through mostly is Philbrick's enthusiasm for the novel as a rollercoaster ride for the senses, a vibrant package of the glorious cruelty and magnificent dullness of life - a whirlpool of a book that sucks you under for what seems an age until, like Ishmael, you reach the surface again gasping for air, with the realisation that your life will never be quite the same again.

I am sure that Philbrick, like me, would urge you to read Moby-Dick rather than his book if you were choosing between the two. If, however, you feel you can't face the leviathan, the book under review here will take you a couple of hours to knock off, and is a great insight into what is one of the greatest books ever written.

If you, like me, have read and loved Moby-Dick, it's worth picking this book up as it will take you back to the source, and possibly give you new insights.


Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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