Reading list: Moby Dick

How to start: This year marks the 200th anniversary of Herman Melville and the internet is abuzz with its commemoration. This doesn’t take-away from the fact that Moby Dick felt like a challenging read. Bryan Waterman’s Top 5 Bits of Advice for First-Time Readers of the book might have been helpful. As it was, an allusion to Melville’s being inspired to write better after studying Shakespeare was impetus enough to get me to work. Fortunately Melville is full of humour and that’s what I’d like to share in the quotes below.

Favourite quotes: No man prefers to sleep two in a bed. In fact you would a good deal rather not sleep with your own brother. I don’t know how it is, but people like to be private when they are sleeping. And when it comes to sleeping with an unknown stranger, in a strange inn, in a strange town, and that stranger a harpooner then your objections indefinitely multiply. (p 27)

“Just as you please; I’m sorry I can’t spare ye a table-cloth for a mattress, and it’s a plaguy rough board here” - feeling of the knots and notches. “But wait a bit, Skrimshander; I’ve got a carpenter’s plane there in the bar - wait, I say, and I’ll make ye snug enough.” So saying he procured the plane; and with his old silk handkerchief first dusting the bench, vigorously set to planning away at my bed, the while grinning like an ape. The shavings flew right and left; till at last the plane-iron came bump against an indestructible knot. The landlord was near spraining his wrist, and I told him for heaven’s sake to quit - the bed was soft enough to suit me, and I did not know how all the planing in the world could make eider down of a pine plank. (p 27)

Next: how shall we define the whale, by his obvious externals, so as conspicuously to label him for all time to come? To be short, then, a whale is a spouting fish with a horizontal tail. There you have him. However contracted, that definition is the result of expanded meditation. (p 111)

The fact is, that among his hunters at least, the whale would by all hands be considered a noble dish, were there not so much of him; but when you come to sit down before a meat-pie nearly one hundred feet long, it takes away your appetite. (p 230)

(…) he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional innoffensiveness by all to all. (p 270)

Applied to any other creature than the Leviathan - to an ant or a flea - such portly terms might justly be deemed unwarrantably grandiloquent. But when Leviathan is the text, the case is altered. Fain am I to stagger to this emprise under the weightiest words of the dictionary. And here be it said, that whenever it has been convenient to consult one in the course of these dissertations, I have invariably used a huge quarto edition of Johnson, expressly purchased for that purpose; because that famous lexicographer’s uncommon personal bulk more fitted him to compile a lexicon to be used by a whale author like me. (p 334)