Why read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick

It’s been years – decades really – since I read Moby-Dick. I remember, I approached it with caution, I had the vague thought that Moby-Dick was an outdated story. I suppose  I was also intimidated by its size, it’s a long book. But then, can you really consider yourself a serious reader if you don’t read the most famous novel in American history?

The first 150 pages of Moby Dick is a challenge. But after that, I can tell you, everything you heard about it, that is  boring, stuffy,  etc, they are all wrong. Moby-Dick is a novel that opens up new worlds. It is, as Nathaniel Philbrick writes in his slim and  wonderful book Why Read Moby-Dick?,

nothing less that the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts and ideals that contributed to the outbreak of a revolution in 1775 as well as a civil war in 1861 and continue to drive this country’s ever-contentious march into the future.

An exaggeration perhaps, but Philbrick’s admiration and enthusiasm about Moby-Dick is infectious. The book, is divided into twenty eight parts that can be read separately as small stories. He explores the main characters, Ismael, the narrator of the story, a loner, a drifter, with no particular family or other relations. His only friend is the harpooner Queequeg, a kind, generous, loyal and wise Polynesian. They foster an intimate friendship that transcends their differences. Through their friendship, Melville explore the wealth and the possibilities that exist in diversity. Then, there is Starbuck, a prudent and calm man. It is the voice of reason aboard the Pequod. But, in a way, he is also weak, he finally gives up by submitting to captain’s madness.

Just like Starbuck, America’s leaders in the 1850s looked at one another with vacant deer-in-the-headlights stares at the United States, a great and noble country crippled by a lie, slowly but inevitably sailed toward its cataclysmic encounter with the source of its discontents.

And finally there is Ahab, the captain of the Pequod, a complicated, mysterious character. A man of great depth and  few words, a monomaniac, a mad, a demagogue. “I’ m demoniac, I am madness maddened, he soliloquizes.”

Along the way, we get a sense of Herman Melville, the man and the writer. Philbrick explores his friendship  and his admiration of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The discussions Melville had with Hawthorn had a profound influence upon the creation of Moby-Dick.

With this short and beautiful book Nathaniel Philbrick tries to start a new conversation and   inspire readers to return or discover Herman Melville.  You can benefit from the book even if you haven’t read Moby-Dick but to make the most of it, you  really need to read Moby-Dick first.