Book Review: Moby-Dick

I don’t mean for this blog to turn into just a bunch of book reviews, but I’ve been reading a lot lately, alright? I do hope to post soon about “copyright and the pirate bay trial”, and perhaps something philosophically oriented as well. But no promises.

In any case, even if I never posted book reviews, I would post one for Moby-Dick, because it has leaped to the front of my list of great books. That’s right – I think Moby-Dick is almost certainly the best novel ever written in the English language, and might even be the best thing ever written in the English language, period. But I’m not going to explore the question of whether it’s better than Shakespeare’s best.

I didn’t really expect this – I came into Lit Trad IV expecting to love Crime and Punishment, really like Go Down Moses, like Moby-Dick, and tolerate Mansfield Park. We haven’t read Go Down Moses yet, but so far all my predicts are right except for Moby-Dick. I don’t just like it; it’s simply amazing.

What makes it so great? A large part of it is simply its scope. It tries to be the modern epic, and succeeds admirably. Some people find the “encyclopedic” portions of the book boring; I thought they were really well done, and was surprised to find myself enjoying reading for ten pages of tiny text about “cetology” so I can learn about how nature can’t be fit in a box or “the whiteness of the whale” so I can learn about the terrifying sublime. And those parts are necessary to do what an epic is supposed to – explore all of human life, religion, politics, economics, social interactions, etc.

(Interlude: This business about the “modern epic” I actually find somewhat fascinating. As technology has progressed, the primary literary form has changed, and epics are normally done in the primary literary form – but there are only a few works in the history of mankind that deserve the term “epic”. In the days of oral traditions, we had oral epics, such as the Iliad and Odyssey, because verse is easier to remember. When writing came about but there wasn’t really any way to publish something, we got literary epics like the Aeneid and the Divine Comedy. When printing first came about but wasn’t that widespread, we got Shakespeare, none of whose plays are themselves an epic, but of whom I’m willing to say his entire corpus composes something “epic”. Milton’s Paradise Lost is an interesting abberation, but it still makes sense, since printing wasn’t that widespread at that point. When books become widespread, we get the novel, and Moby-Dick.)

But its scope is not all that makes Moby-Dick amazing, even if that’s the easiest thing to describe about it. There’s also the fact that its characters are so compelling – there’s only perhaps a dozen real characters, and by my count six major ones (Ishmael, Ahab, Quigqueg, Starbuck, Stubb, Flask) – but they all seem at the same time immensely real and perfect “psychic projections” of a single consciousness.

And then there’s just the quality of the prose. The entire book is worth reading just to get this monologue:

Ahab is forever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou, underling! that thou obeyest mine.

I’d also recommend the Demons & Wizards song “Beneath These Waves”, from their album Touched by the Crimson King. It’s actually about Moby-Dick. Don’t you love power metal bands singing about great literature? I’m just waiting for the first concept album about the Divine Comedy, or perhaps about the Bible itself (now that’s be interesting, if perhaps slightly blasphemous).

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