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Read Moby Dick

David Sedaris says he read Moby Dick. The liar. Well, I assume he's lying, because (a) he's a humorist (i.e., professional liar) and (b) it's well known that 71% of all Moby-Dick-reading claims are lies. But Sedaris provides a fairly believable account of how he managed to pull it off, so, I dunno -- maybe he did read it. It's possible, I guess.

In any case, even if he tried he probably got further into the book than I did. Earlier this year I, too, decided that, at long last, I would tackle Moby Dick. So I checked it out from the library, brought it home, and then assiduously ignored it for a few weeks while I read Nero Wolfe mysteries and graphic novels. Finally, one evening, I decided to bite the literary bullet. As I lay in bed before turning off the light, I picked up the well-worn volume, turned to Chapter One ("Loomings"), and prepared to fulfill a lifelong goal of mine.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long precisely --having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me ...
Wait, what? Driving off the spleen? Whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me?

Unnerved, I pressed on.

... whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
I put the book back on my bedside table, turned to The Queen, and said "Hey, just FYI: I am not going to read Moby Dick. Like, never, in my entire life."

The Queen gave me the briefest of glances, shrugged, and went back to reading her own book. This is why I married her.

I enjoy crossing things off my "To-Do In This Life" list, and I've been x-ing out a lot of them in the last couple years. Not accomplishing things and then crossing them off, oh no; just attempting (or mentally reevaluating) them and then announcing "Yeah, that's not happening." Like, I always wanted to run a marathon. And, point in fact, I'm sure I could do the Seattle Marathon in November if I wanted to. But I recently ran a half marathon and, oh brother, whatta freakin' drag. By mile 8 I was totally bored. By mile 10 I was wishing I'd brought a magazine. The idea of running 13.1 miles twice -- hell, if I wanted that kind of excitement I'd buckle down and read Moby Dick. Which I could also do. If I wanted to. Which I don't.

Ten years ago, if you asked me if I had read Ulysses, I probably would have just scoffed "of course" or hedged with an "I've been too busy reading Milan Kundera" or whatever. Now, at the age of 32, I not only lack the initiative to read boring classics or run marathons, I don't even feel the urge to lie about it any more. "Never read Ulysses and never will," I'm likely to say today. "I got shitfaced in an Irish bar once, and I figure that's close enough."

Some people might say that lowering your standards is no way to meet your life goals. But those people are a bunch of 20-something Moby Dick liars, so, seriously: who cares what they think?

Posted on July 30, 2003 to Books


I read Ulysses, but Moby Dick? You'd have to be crazy to read that book. Unless you speak Hawaiian. It just so happens that my middle name (Keoki) is Hawaiian, and for much of my life, I was led to believe that it was the equivalent of "George". It wasn't until college that I discovered that "Keoki" literally is Hawaiian for the entire text of "Moby Dick." So if you spoke Hawaiian, you'd just have to read the word "Keoki", and you would have achieved another of your life goals. If one of your life goals was to learn Hawaiian, then you could easily kill two whales with one harpoon, so to speak.

Posted by: Hooha on July 30, 2003 4:33 PM

The closest I have ever been to reading Moby Dick is getting fall-down drunk and reading passages from it at the top of my lungs in my best pirate brogue. Which I highly recommend.

Posted by: Karen on July 30, 2003 4:45 PM

But those people are a bunch of 20-something Moby Dick liars, so, seriously: who cares what they think?
†hank you, Matt. As I approach 33, I find that more and more - or maybe it was just that party last weekend, and the one the week before that, with all the fucking ironic hairdos and the deeply uninformed-yet-adamant opinions - that this is the perfect sentiment.
It's either that, or letting the hypo get the upper hand of you. Frickin' 20-something Moby Dick liars.

Posted by: Jessica on July 30, 2003 4:56 PM

I would tell you that I had read Moby Dick twice, once in High School and then again in College, and not only that, but I really enjoyed it, except for the Chapter on Cetology, but then you'd just call me a liar.

Posted by: Rob on July 30, 2003 4:56 PM

don't think of it as lowering your standards. think of it as broadening them.

Posted by: the dread pirate jimbo on July 30, 2003 5:10 PM

I built up to _Moby Dick_ by reading _Two Years Before The Mast_, a non-fiction sailing story by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. I don't recall the vintage of the story book, but it was more or less contemporary with _Moby Dick_ (and available in the public domain, whee). I also read the complete Aubrey-Maturin duodekology by Patrick O'Brian around that time, but I don't know if that was before or after _Moby Dick_.

Add the fact that I'm far too obtuse for all but the most heavy handed literary symbolism, and you won't be surprised to find that I found _The Whale_ to be rollicking historical fiction, and I find that people's perception that it's about a man and a whale to be more or less inaccurate. Aside from an early flashback to Ahab's first encounter, the white whale doesn't appear in the book until the last 3 chapters. Other than that, there was whaling to do, and the book is a documentary on the practice (how accurate I don't know, but Melville sliced a little blubber into bible leaves in his time). I knew more about humpbacks than ever before after reading it, especially Ishmael's digression about his opportunity to walk through the preserved carcass of such a great fish that he tattooed its dimensions on his body to record the event.

The trick is to ignore Ahab and focus on Ishmael and Queequeg. Heck, you didn't even get as far as the part of the first chapter where they sleep together.

I don't know how you'd build up to _Ulysses_, though. Maybe watching "O Brother Where Art Thou" after a lobotomy.

Posted by: LAN3 on July 30, 2003 6:11 PM

Oof! I hear you on the Ulysses.

Every year I try to read it before Bloomsday, the holiday that is celebrated in Ireland on the day during which the action in the book happens, but I have failed three years running. However, Moby Dick and I are old friends.

Not only do I love the drum solo, but I had to read that book twice in a week during college in order to write a paper.

My paper was entitled The Mean Meaninglessness of Melvilles Moby Dick. I got an A minus

Posted by: scotty the body on July 30, 2003 6:46 PM

I don't know....for me the image of a dignified nineteenth century gentleman "deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off" is reason enough to read it. Not that I have, as of yet. I'm sure it's just a matter of time though! (Before reading it or crossing it off the list, whatever.)

Posted by: Jennifer on July 30, 2003 7:30 PM

OK, here's my 40-something take. A recommendation: read "The Great Gatsby" ... full of all that literary symbolism stuff but actually a good and satisfying read. Another: if you can sync up with the translation, "The Master and Margarita" by Bulgakov was great fun. Stunning that is was banned in Russia until the '80s. A confession: I was lead to believe that "Atlas Shrugged" is superceeded only by the Bible in sales. So I bought a nice hard-cover copy and set out to read it. I made it to Chapter 8 before yelling "I get it already!"

Posted by: Sam on July 30, 2003 7:53 PM

I know how you feel, I was coaxed into reading A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and it was apparently quite a cool book. Although the plot was quite interesting, the language needed a lot of deciphering. Very hard work - possibly not worth the effort.

Posted by: Craig on July 31, 2003 1:08 AM

I liked Moby Dick. Took me a while to read it, though. I even liked the long whale encyclopedia part in the middle. I am not sure if I will ever read it again, though.

Posted by: Scott on July 31, 2003 2:37 AM

oh man, i haven't read something this good in quite a while. i'm still in college listening to a bunch of no-nothing-know-it-alls talking about philosophy and future goals that will never survive longer than the haze of bong smoke that surrounds them. so it's nice to know that my giving up early has totally been worth it. thanks!

Posted by: daniel on July 31, 2003 3:09 AM

Don't worry Matthew...the film version will be on TV soon.

I'm sure a could come up with some acerbic comment on how this blog entry is a metaphor for the impatience, short attention spans and general laziness inherent in modern wester culture but I'm not sure if I can be arsed...

Posted by: i_cola on July 31, 2003 3:13 AM

Don't worry Matthew...the film version will be on TV soon.

I'm sure a could come up with some acerbic comment on how this blog entry is a metaphor for the impatience, short attention spans and general laziness inherent in modern western culture but I'm not sure if I can be arsed...

Posted by: i_cola on July 31, 2003 3:13 AM

sounds like you have found yourself growing grim about the mouth; and it is a damp, drizzly November in your soul...

Posted by: uh_yeah on July 31, 2003 3:44 AM

Matt, I have you beat, I have decided at 25 that Moby Dick liars are a waste of my time, and i'm better off for it. Welcomg to the darkside.

Posted by: Ben on July 31, 2003 4:55 AM

I believe Moby Dick was the first book to be burned in Fahrenheit 451.

Though I never read that book either.

Posted by: AD on July 31, 2003 5:48 AM

Sedaris' essay was funnier. Actually, Moby Dick was also funnier.

Posted by: Stanley Wollman on July 31, 2003 7:09 AM

I loved Moby Dick in high school and I thought Gregory Peck was great in it. I was a little diappointed by the special effects on St. Elmo's Fire, (I guess ILM wasn't around in Melville's time). I hear that Patrick Stewart was better than Peck, but I usually don't go for this "modernizing of classic media". I always prefer to go right to the original source.

Posted by: sloop john bee on July 31, 2003 7:25 AM

I enjoy reading your web log. You are smart. Loved that you compared Ulysses to getting shitfaced at a bar. Thanks.

Posted by: Anise on July 31, 2003 7:27 AM

I don't even know how to PRONOUNCE "Queequeg". It would drive me nuts reading it over and over, trying to figure out how I should be pronouncing it in my head.

Posted by: Ryan Waddell on July 31, 2003 7:41 AM

you'll like this: http://tinyurl.com/imlp

Posted by: Mark Hurst on July 31, 2003 7:55 AM

I only slept with Ishmael that one time, can't we move on already???

Posted by: Queequeg on July 31, 2003 8:03 AM

I tried to read Moby Dick once in high school to write a book report. I figured that since the Gregory Peck movie was my dad's favorite film and I'd seen it about a dozen times, I knew what was going on. I think I made it about halfway through. Then I wrote the book report based on the movie and didn't do very well because my English teacher had actually READ the book. Oh well.

A Clockwork Orange is a very good book, though.

Posted by: Laura on July 31, 2003 8:10 AM

i'd much rather go fishing than read a book about going fishing. perhaps Melville is venting his spleen at being named Herman. I tried reading Gravity's Rainbow this summer and was so stupefyingly bored by page 250 that i stopped. all that and i'm a 20-something too!

could i get any lower?

Posted by: adam on July 31, 2003 8:26 AM

I'm going to put in a vote for the worth of Moby Dick, Ulysses and even Gravity's Rainbow. The boring, incomprehensible, obtuse and mystifying passages were all worth it in the end. Mind you, I read them all in my early twenties, when I had the time and the inclination to read the cruellest literature had to offer. If you handed me a copy of Gravity's Rainbow now, at 32, I probably wouldn't get more than five pages through. Why would I commit so much energy and time to a novel? I've got a job, a wife, and a few short hours out of every day that I can properly call my own. Weighty novels are supposed to be read when you're young, pretentious and completely unable to appreciate them.

Posted by: palinode on July 31, 2003 9:11 AM

Moby Dick is a great book!

Actually, out book group read it last fall, and opinion was divided. There were two of us that loved it, and the rest of the group hated it. That's probably a pretty representative split.

That first paragraph is hilarious, though. I can't believe you gave up after that. Ishmael's saying that whenever he gets so cranky that he wants to go around knocking people's hats off, he knows it's time to get to sea. WTF? Very funny.

Or I could just be deranged.

Posted by: J.D. Roth on July 31, 2003 11:00 AM

I read Moby Dick back before high-school. You should try to read it *while* running a marathon. Think about it. That would be awesome.

Posted by: BillB on July 31, 2003 11:08 AM

Actually, given that you are known to enjoy puzzles, I think you would definitely enjoy reading a clockwork orange. Much better than the movie (which was still pretty good). As far as supposed classics go, I dunno if the grapes of wrath counts, but I loved every page of... the first half of it.

Posted by: K on July 31, 2003 11:09 AM

I dunno whether this is something to be ashamed of or not, but I quite like Star Trek and have seen all the movies, my favourite being "Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan".

A couple of years ago, the Patrick Stewart "Moby Dick" film was on the tv, so I thought I'd give it a go (having tried to read the book in the past and failing miserably).

I was surprised to find that they were both very similar, with Khan taking the role of Ahab, and Captain Kirk playing a great white whale. Erm, well, you know what I mean... 8-)

So as far as I'm concerned, if you seen The Wrath of Khan, that's good enough...

Posted by: David Way on July 31, 2003 11:33 AM

I wrote a brilliant book report on Moby Dick, in 6th or 7th grade. I read part of the first chapter and the back of the book. Writing about reading a classic counts as reading it...doesn't it?

Posted by: Melissa on July 31, 2003 11:38 AM

Two things you should know before writing off Moby Dick and Ulysses:

1. Moby Dick devotes an entire chapter to the discussion of farting at sea; and
2. No fewer than 3 people wank themselves during the course of Ulysses.


Posted by: Ian on July 31, 2003 12:16 PM

I read Ulysses in my senior year of high school under the guidance of an extremely ambitious young English teacher who'd studied Joyce while in her (recent) stint in grad school.

I am glad I had the experience of reading it in a classroom setting and with discussion as to what the fuck was going on after every chapter.

I don't think I could do that today unless there was a class somewhere I felt like taking.

Posted by: martin on July 31, 2003 12:20 PM

I too decided I needed to read Moby Dick. It was my short-lived "read at least one classic a year" phase. I did enjoy Moby Dick, but I can't remember anything about it now.
If you want a hard to read classic that is actually fun, try Lolita.

Posted by: marty on July 31, 2003 1:13 PM

Matthew -- Moby Dick is fine, occasionally even totally rad, except the key is you only read every other chapter or so. Half of the book is a story about Ahab, and the other half is just basically dry facts about sperm whales, whale migration, the whaling industry of Nantucket, ambergris, et cetera, and it has no bearing whatsoever on the story. Fortunately you can always tell which chapters are relevant to the story and which are just essays. Skip those.

But I second "Two Years Before the Mast" as a good replacement if you just want a rousing, interesting story about 19th century seamanship.

I could only get through the first Aubrey/Maturin book, but my brother loves them, and he's something of an expert on the subject, so they might be worth a try.

And Ulysses can go to hell. In general, James Joyce can go to hell. I've given up on him too. Even those erotic letters he wrote to his wife were boring and opaque.

Posted by: Hildago on July 31, 2003 2:09 PM

Queequeg said: I only slept with Ishmael that one time, can't we move on already???


Posted by: scotty the body on July 31, 2003 2:56 PM

I just started reading from my list of "Great Works of Literature That All Really Smart People Claim to Have Read" and Moby Dick was somewhere around sixth or seventh on my list.

But now that you've given up on it I'm tempted to move it up on my list. It seems like more of a challenge now - another reason to say "see how grown up I am, I don't watch the Simpsons, I read Moby Dick instead".

Of course I've got to finish Winson Churchill's "The Gathering Storm" and associated Volumes and then the Benjamin Franklin biography you recommended and Sun-Tzu's "The Art of War"....

Aww screw it. This is the episode where Ralph sees the leprechaun that tells him to burn things. Now THAT'S a CLASSIC!

Posted by: Duane on July 31, 2003 2:59 PM

Hidalgo-- the first book of the Aubrey/Maturin series seems as though it was written before the author decided to write a series, and the second book isn't much better, spending the first 2/3rds off in the harsh social jungle of Jane Austin Land. After that, the series spends very little time on dry land, and nearly all of it is preparation for battle or some rip-roaring action itself. There's one book that delves into politics and the stock market a bit, and one where A/M are captured by the French, but after book 2, it's great. Plus you'll want to read at least as far as book 8 or 9 before the movie comes out.

Posted by: LAN3 on July 31, 2003 3:56 PM

I'm one of the few people I know who has read Don Quixote in its entirety. Thus I know for a fact that most people who claim to have read it are lying because the scene with the windmills, which is the only thing you ever hear about Don Quixote, takes place in chapter 3. Of, like, 400 chapters.

Similarly, Gulliver's Travels. After the Lilliputians, he goes on to, like, 3 more weird countries. And you never hear about those, except for pedants who occasionally throw the adjective "brobdingnagian" at you. I'm not ashamed to admit I didn't get past the section on the Brobdingnagians, either. The problem with the book is it's a satire, but it's satirizing a society that's 300 years old, so the jokes are somewhat lost on a modern audience.

Posted by: sancho panza on July 31, 2003 5:08 PM

I have to second the deranged J.D. Roth's comment. Moby Dick is wonderful. I avoided it for years, as part of my policy to avoid all classic literature, and when I finally dove in I was so happily surprised.

The secret is recognizing that it is hilarious, and the secret to that secret is all right there in the first passage that you quoted. Read that much again, and this time, while you read, imagine Melville giggling in the background. It is funny funny funny.
Except for the un-funny parts.

Posted by: Squidocto on July 31, 2003 5:12 PM

Another deranged observation to please Squidocto: another way you can tell this book is funny is that Melville spends an entire fucking chapter describing "the whiteness of the whale". Now your literature teacher will try to tell you how deep and meaningful that is, but I think that Melville's just laughing himself silly. Or not. Squidocto's right, though: much of this book is downright funny. I think a lot of people miss the humor in literature because they approach it thinking it's supposed to be all serious and meaningful. Sometimes it's not. Somebody above mentioned Lolita: a total not-serious laugh-out-loud book. Very funny stuff. Humbert Humbert is the King Doofus and Lolita makes an ass of him. That's part of the charm of the book.

Posted by: J.D. Roth on July 31, 2003 5:44 PM

Never mind Meville. If you want to read old novels with, like, meaning and stuff, just head straight to Victor Hugo. Hugo kicks ASS. Serious ass. Hunchback of Notre Dame and Le Miserables are fucking sweet, man. Especially Hunchback! Did you ever see the Disney cartoon? Man, it totally flip-flopped the story. The handsome soldier guy is a total shithead in the book, and the murderous Archdeacon-villain is a sort of tragic hero. And Quasimodo is big, mean, deaf, and violent. And Gringoire... well, he's basically a coffee shop hipster Emo Guy.

Yeah. Hunchback. Owns.

Posted by: Edgeling on August 1, 2003 2:07 AM

Hmmm... I've never even thought of attempting Moby Dick. I have read Atlas Shrugged (except for the 60 pages or so near the end of the protagonist's boring speech about the evils of socialism) and Gullivar's Travels, which was interesting if extremely odd. I rather liked Fahrenheit 451, but then I have a penchant for Bradbury.

All in all, though, as I get older I agree that I barely have the energy to ready books I *like* much less ones I have to struggle to get through. Someone on here said to try to read Mody Dick while running the marathon. Maybe that's the key, eh? Not to cross things off the list prematurely so much as condense them. You wanna get knighted by the Queen, hanglide over the Andes and finally get in shape to look good in that Speedo? No problem! Just stick those suckers together an you'll have a life list worth doin'!

Posted by: Jamie on August 1, 2003 6:18 AM

Um - I just bought the three volume Gulag Archipelago... can someone tell me if this was a mistake?

Posted by: Stephanie on August 1, 2003 6:38 AM

Yeah, screw Moby Dick. And Ulysses was never even considered. But I did read Homer's The Odyssey and it wasn't too bad! Yeah, I partly read it just for the bragging rights. I'm a jerk that way. Also, my sister actually read War and Peace in college and got a college credit for it! But no thanks. The flawed genius Woody Allen once said, "I took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It involves Russia."

Posted by: Woodge on August 1, 2003 7:13 AM

i see your "Moby Dick" and raise you "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" by Alexander Solzhenitsyn...
talk about a hard read...geez...

Posted by: Kal on August 1, 2003 10:09 AM

It's amazing how people equate brains with big, boring books. Sure, we all know the pros of reading, but at what cost. I've started keeping the list of books I've read to myself so I'm not tempted to act like a pompous ass at dinner parties.

Wouldn't you rather be the person who gleans some sort of usable social philosophy from the books you read instead of being able to claim you understand all the obtuse symbolism? Good for you, you've learned absolutlely nothing!


Posted by: jim on August 1, 2003 11:57 AM

Read Moby Dick in high school. Check. I liked it. I especially liked all the barely repressed homoeroticism (what do you think whalers did in those months at sea?). Read Ulysses four times. Check, check, check, check. But MY life moment was reading Proust. Now that's a long book. In my fortieth year, after a failure every decade since I was 15, I plowed all the way through. Check. It really was very good, but I can't recommend it for everyone.

But I never made it through Magic Mountain, in English or German.

Posted by: Bill on August 1, 2003 12:03 PM

Dickens. Bleak House. Kicked my ass every time I tried to muddle through it (three times in all).


Posted by: Stacey on August 1, 2003 12:09 PM

A brilliant little site that gives you all your classics in a minute. Now you can read it and still not waste your time.


Posted by: Hoolia on August 2, 2003 1:20 AM

Forget about finding symbols or whatever in Moby Dick and just enjoy it as a funny book. There will not be a dumb test at the end.

Once you've gotten farther into the book with the right attitude, I think you'll come to find phrases like "whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses..." more humorous than serious.

Posted by: mr. f on August 4, 2003 2:34 PM

I've never read Moby Dick or Ulysses, but I have (at least once) gotten two-thirds of the way through Joyce's Finnegans Wake before zoning out and waking up with a serious headache from trying to figure out all the English/Gaelic/pure gibberish or whatever. Flann O'Brien's The Poor Mouth is probably more fun, in either language...

Incidentally, my Mom had to read Moby Dick in high school, and it bored her senseless.

Posted by: Karen on August 5, 2003 1:46 PM

I never thought to read Moby Dick; its reputation is poor and who needs to plough through an overwrought 400-page of absurd symbols? But the first paragraph you posted sounds fascinating. I shall try to read it forthwith.

Posted by: dave heasman on August 6, 2003 5:34 AM

Has anyone gotten through Vanity Fair? The only book in my English degree I simply could not read.
(I never had to read Moby Dick - heh)

Posted by: sibyl on August 6, 2003 12:04 PM

heh try Sons and Lovers by D H Laurence.

the book is about a young bloke getting laid, and when he finally does he moves on. Not only did i not realise what it was about, i didnt understand when he got laid, even after the teacher pointer out the text that stated (?) he did. I read that bit 15 times and thought it was about a tree. Serious insanity.

Posted by: Bloody Dave on August 10, 2003 10:51 PM

I did not read the book yet I watched the movie. i thought it was a great piece of lit. showing symblosim. Not only does the whale symbolize death in it self it shows one mans will to conqur death. Although he fails at it. It reminds us again that we have a higher power who we must look up to and not think we are better than him!

Posted by: Ashlwy on March 16, 2004 10:20 AM