Moby-Dick is as mammoth, mysterious and elusive as the enormous white whale that gives the book its name. The opening line (“Call me Ishmael”) is one of the most famous in all literature. And even people who’ve never read it are familiar with the peg-legged, vengeance-seeking Captain Ahab, the archetype for any maniacally obsessed leader.
What makes the novel so fascinating is how modern it feels. It’s an adventure tale about a man who’s driven to hunt down the beast who maimed him, but it’s also a treatise on whales and the whaling industry, a sharp look at class and culture (the sailors hail from all around the world), and a bold literary experiment, for 1851 or even today.
It’s hugely digressive, contains dialogue that at times sounds Shakespearean, and there’s not really much action until the end. But somehow it’s still very entertaining. Melville (who, of course, knew all about whaling) is such a clever, genial writer, that you’ll be smiling and chuckling throughout and gasping at his powers of description and observation.
You’ll smell the salty air, feel the churning waves and your heart will beat a little faster when one of the crew cries “There she blows!”
I wasn’t especially moved by the story, but I don’t think we’re meant to be. Each of the characters is distinct, and Melville is savvy in the way that he uses silence to reveal dissent, particularly in the growing animosity between Ahab and Starbuck, the responsible first mate.
But what I do feel about the book is awesome and respect. Like the ocean itself, it is vast and has unknowable depths, and I can see myself in another couple of years venturing back out for another rewarding trip.