How to read Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
By Geoffrey Sanborn
Sometime in the 1870s, an Englishwoman came aboard a trading schooner anchored off the Samoan island of Upolu. "I have brought you some books," she said to the captain, "and among them are three volumes by an American writer—Herman Melville. It is called The Whale, and it is the strangest, wildest, and saddest story I have ever read."
I like that anecdote for a lot of reasons, but the main one is that it gives us a glimpse of Moby-Dick in its original habitat: the remote, scruffy margins of 19th-century literary culture. For a good 70 years after its original publication, Moby-Dick was a book with almost no visibility and absolutely no prestige. It was possible to open it with no expectations—or, even better, to open it as the schooner captain did, with nothing more than a shadowy anticipation of strangeness, wildness, and sadness.
These days most people think of Moby-Dick not as a strange, wild, sad story but as a Hard Book, full of boring whaling talk and hypersubtle symbolism, the kind of thing that you're forced to read in school and that three-quarters of the class never finishes. As a result, most readers begin the book with their guard up. They can't get into it. It can't get into them. They put it down and never pick it up again.
But Moby-Dick wasn't meant to be a rigorous, depleting experience, a triathlon for the housebound. It was meant to be a stimulant to thought and feeling; it was meant to make your mind a more interesting and enjoyable place. So if the prospect of reading Moby-Dick makes you feel even a little bit daunted, try to get as close to that earlier reading experience as you can. Get an unannotated edition with no introduction and no essays in the back. Clear your mind of expectations and open it to chapter one. Listen with nothing more than ordinary human curiosity to the voice that begins speaking to you.
It's not as easy as it sounds. Most Americans have been trained to revere the "classics" and to think that the right way to read such books is to seek out their cleverly hidden meanings. It can be surprisingly difficult to come to Moby-Dick with the kind of idle, flexible interest that you bring to most of the other things you read. But the secret to Moby-Dick is that there is no secret. Everything that matters is right on the surface.
And that's because the surface is where you make contact with the voice that speaks in the book. That voice asks to be called Ishmael, but it doesn't limit itself to the consciousness of that character; it roams at will around and beyond the ship the Pequod. What it wants above all else is to be in a meaningful relationship with you, and it will do almost anything—tell jokes, coin words, switch genres, change moods, share dreams, kill characters, hint at blasphemies, fly into rhapsodies, go spinning off into the ether of philosophical speculation—in order to make that happen.
Go with it. If you find yourself enjoying some passage without knowing why, if you find yourself stimulated into more intense thoughts and feelings, if you find yourself sinking beneath the overused upper layers of your personality, then you've "gotten" the book. Moby-Dick isn't about the Problem of the Universe, as one of its reviewers derisively suggested. It's about the effort to think about the Problem of the Universe in the company of another mind, the effort to feel, in the deepest recesses of your consciousness, at least temporarily unalone. Nothing is solved when the Pequod goes down, but you and Ishmael are still miraculously afloat.
Geoffrey Sanborn is an associate professor at Bard College and has written a book and several essays on Melville.
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