Why Read Moby-Dick?

By Bush, Harold K., Jr. | The Christian Century, June 13, 2012 | Go to article overview

Why Read Moby-Dick?


Bush, Harold K., Jr., The Christian Century


Why Read Moby-Dick?

By Nathaniel Philbrick

Viking, 144 pp., $25.00

Among all the books written by Americans past and present, one is particularly special to me. I rarely teach it--and when I do, I offer it only to graduate students, and I devote a lot of time to it. The book is elusive, mysterious, passionate and proud, and I have little patience for those who just don't get it or find it boring. So Moby-Dick quietly rests on my bookshelf, heavily annotated and rarely used.

The title of Nathaniel Philbrick's slim new meditation on this grand experimental fable asks, Why Read Moby-Dick? It immediately foregrounds the questions at the heart of every assignment made by every English teacher: Why read this book? Or that book? For that matter, why do we assign reading in the first place? In answer, the humanist tradition of liberal arts has long maintained that reading the great works fosters the virtues that make for good human beings.

Philbrick seems to be saying that there is a spiritual quality to the act of reading. Unfortunately, however, he does not delve into the question broached by the title of this little gem of a book, but I believe he would agree that reading Moby-Dick will help us become more mature individuals, more nuanced thinkers and believers and better citizens, if only we take its many challenges head on and study the book with seriousness and devotion.

Philbrick's main angle of vision, not surprisingly, is historical. He is the author of many books about seafaring, including the award-winning In the Heart of the Sea, which narrates the real-life 1832 catastrophe of the whaler Essex, the tale that inspired Melville's masterpiece. So what we have here are the highly condensed musings of a scholar who has given his life to the study of such things as the sea, sailors and whaling. Philbrick's astute gaze makes for thrilling reading, full of brilliant yet understated insights, nuggets of lost data and a few interesting asides about the novel's relevance for the contemporary United States.

The style of the book is inviting; it's too bad most English professors are unwilling or unable to write in such an uncluttered voice (and of course some of my colleagues will complain that the book is too belletristic and too untheorized). Almost all of the chapters are extremely short, some only two or three pages in length. This style mimics the book's subject: Moby-Dick also features many short, topical chapters. Philbrick's chapters are compelling and quirky too; many of his readings are far enough outside the box to be pleasantly surprising.

For instance, he gives a wonderful rendition of how Melville came to learn of the Essex tragedy. The son of Owen Chase, who was first mate on the Essex and author of the original narrative, loaned Melville his copy of his father's book. Melville was deliriously delighted to read of the 85-foot sperm whale that crushed the bow of the Essex into kindling. Another excellent, brief chapter describes the Quaker merchants who ran the business of whaling. The pious Bildad, like many of his contemporaries, spoke elegantly of the Gospels but was a hard-hearted and ruthless businessman. Philbrick alludes to Frederick Douglass's famous observation that the most brutal slaveholders were always the most devout.

Speaking of slavery, Philbrick works hard to show how Moby-Dick, published a decade before the advent of the Civil War, presages that conflict. …

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