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Moby-Dick: Preamble and Chapter 1

Chapters read: Etymology, Extracts, i. Loomings

Page reached: 6 of 552 (1.15% compelte)

Status report: Page six?! Jesus, what a rip-off. I read fourteen pages of preamble and get no credit for it whatsoever.

Actually, to be honest, I kinda skipped around the "Extracts" part, skimmed here and there. Yes, I was cutting corners even before I got to page one, but come on. I feel like Joanne from "Office Space":

You know what, Stan, if you want me to wear 37 pieces of flair, like your pretty boy over there, Brian, why don't you just make the minimum 37 pieces of flair?
Right. Exactly. And you know what, Melville? If you want me to read a dozen pages of whale descriptions, why don't you just include it in the book proper, give those pages nice American numbers like "4" and "11," instead of this roman numeral crap. According to my calculus, x = optional.

And, anyway: I have the benefit of a quality, late 20th-century public school education, so I already knew what a whale was before I even opened your tome, thank you very much.

In chapter one, the narrator (a guy I like to call "Ishmael") goes on an on about how every man, woman, child, and housecat feels the inexorable call of the sea:

Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land?
Already I feel like I'm on a date with someone who does not share my interests. Yes, I have felt vibrations while sailing on ships, but they were more gastrointestinal than mystical. And I've never felt crazy to go to sea. Me, I'm a big fan of land, the sort of terrain you can ride a bike across and build a bagel store on. If empathizing with the narrator's hydrophilia is a prerequisite for enjoying this book, I may be in trouble.

Favorite passage: "The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!"

Words looked up:

  • Mole (As in "downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves ..."): A massive, usually stone wall constructed in the sea, used as a breakwater and built to enclose or protect an anchorage or a harbor.
  • Decoction: An extract obtained from a body by boiling it down.
  • Orchard thieves (Melville refers to having to pay for things as "the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us."): I have no idea what this alludes to. Update: D'oh! I am dumb. I (repeatedly) misread this as "orchid thieves," no doubt because I recently read the book of the same name. Yes, the meaning of "orchard thieves" is clear.

Posted on November 01, 2006 to NaNoReMo


orchard thieves = adam & eve?

Posted by: Anna on November 1, 2006 5:29 PM

Orchard Thieves - Adam & Eve, obviously.

Posted by: David on November 1, 2006 5:30 PM

I believe the two orchard thieves are Adam and Eve. If it matters... :)

Posted by: mike on November 1, 2006 5:30 PM

um, maybe i should have read the other comments before posting. whoops.

Posted by: mike on November 1, 2006 5:31 PM

<sigh>... a reference to yet another book I haven't read. ;-)

Posted by: cassidy on November 1, 2006 6:45 PM

As Richard Dawkins brilliantly noted, scrumping (a British English word for stealing apples from an orchard) is the original sin.

Posted by: Rory on November 1, 2006 6:57 PM

Stop torturing yourself. There are many "classic" pieces of literature that are well worth the time and effort in reading them.

Moby Dick is not one of them.

Do yourself a favor and skip ahead to Chapter 42 where Melville spends pages and pages (and pages) describing the whiteness of the whale. Once you see the horror you're in for, you'll quickly abandon the idea of reading the whole thing. Egads!

who HAS read the entire book

Posted by: Stephen Glenn on November 1, 2006 7:02 PM

I read Moby Dick while working as a proofreader at a law firm. We would get sheafs of bond documents, then nothing for hours, then more bond documents. Maybe it's because, compared with the fine print on a bond issue, Melville is gripping, but I actually enjoyed the book.

Especially the chapter on the whiteness of the whale. (Which was one of Allen Ginsberg's favorites, by the way.)

Posted by: Carny Asada on November 1, 2006 7:29 PM

"The Whiteness of the Whale" is genius -- I'd say it's the best chapter of the lot. Stephen makes a good point, though: you can read that chapter out of context without losing much, and if you don't appreciate it then I wouldn't bank on getting anything out of the rest.

Good luck! It gets worse before it gets better. :)

Posted by: random on November 1, 2006 8:18 PM

What's with all the Moby haters? Melville rocks the whale, 19'th century American Transcendentalism-style.

What everybody seems to be missing is that the thing is actually pretty funny - go back and read that opening paragraph from Loomings again. Following funerals? Knocking people's hats off? There's this dry and understated humor throughout the book (except maybe for how everybody dies). The bit about balancing two whale heads like Locke and Kant ("you come back again; but in a very poor plight.")? Funny.

The book is actually pretty remarkable. Melville blends what's essentially reportage (based on his own experiences as a sailor) with a simple revenge story, and then overhangs the whole with overt and covert discussions of human psychology, metaphysics, morality, and pretty much everything, really.

If you're not going to read a classic, I'd suggest you go ahead and not read Ulysses. It's reasonable to blow that off as self-indulgent wankery for the sake of wankery.

But don't diss the 'Dick.

Posted by: Dave on November 1, 2006 8:36 PM

I've read the entire book, including all the extracts. I thought it was fascinating. And, with regards to Stephen, I agree with James Dickey -- the chapter on the whiteness of the whale is one of the most beautiful bits of poetry in English.

I read Moby Dick before the definitive edition had been pieced together from all the hacked up bits and pieces published during Melville's lifetime. I have that version on my shelf to read again in the near future. This is where 20th century literature starts.

Posted by: pjcamp on November 1, 2006 9:51 PM

While I cannot attest to the greatness/irritation that is Moby Dick, I just wanted to say that I personally hope you end up making it all the way through.

That way I can claim to have read it by proxy.

Posted by: MBCBUYB on November 2, 2006 1:09 AM

So, for those who came in late, what changed your mind between your 2003 declaration that you were never going to read the thing and now?

I have never read Moby Dick, but having been forced in high school to read Billy Budd, I feel I grok the essentials of Melvillian prose and don't feel that I'm missing anything.

Posted by: Marcos on November 2, 2006 5:06 AM

You are reading the unabridged edition, yes?
Not that watered down tripe they try to pass off to Americans with short attention spans?
I'd move on to War and Peace next,
then Les Miserables — there's nothing quite as exciting as pages and pages of graphic descriptions of the sewers of Paris!

Posted by: jon on November 2, 2006 5:25 AM

sorry, not on topic, but did you see this post from Language Log?


Posted by: mark on November 2, 2006 5:26 AM

I've never read Moby Dick. Can't say that I never will though. I suppose that I could be out snowshoeing someday and get caught in a blizzard and be forced to take shelter in a small cabin for days where the only reading material besides that is The Scarlet Letter and Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Then I'd read Moby Dick. Or possibly kill time by chewing my own leg off.

If you want to read a classic, I'd recommend John Ciardi's translation of The Divine Comedy, especially The Inferno and The Purgatorio. Lots of good Italian history, and some fun Catholic doctrinal explanations.

Posted by: C. on November 2, 2006 5:59 AM

I went to Colorado College, where we studied on something called The Block Plan. This means one takes a single course over a 3 1/2 week span. This worked pretty well for Calculus, say, where we'd meet in the morning, go over the homework, do a lecture, get more homework, do the homework, meet after lunch, go over the homework, get a lecture and get more homework. It's intense, but it's doable.

But I was an English major. So, for example, a class like American Renaissance Literature, in which Melville is a giant, is a death march. Great works of literature devoured in two days was the norm. 3 hours of discussion at 9. A day of nothing but reading. 3 hours of lecture again at 9.

All of this is background for the fact that I can boast to not only reading Moby Dick, but I read it multiple times in one week. To be precise, I was dicking around with my final paper topic; I'd yet to select a subject. I read Moby Dick for the class assignment and, I'll be darned if I didn't like it. It was certainly better than Sister Carrie, The Scarlet Letter or The Bostonians! I also had just had a course in post modern literary theory and had all this viscious Deconstruction buzzing in my brain, and this sort of yielded one of those papers that just sort of writes itself. So I read the book again, this time, with my paper in mind. I slept very little, and did another reading while I wrote the paper.

The result: a paper about how Moby Dick was actually about "meaninglessness"! Holy crap. The professor about jizzed himself over it, but called me out on some of my exhaustion-inspired sentences, which read a bit like the spawn of Rain Man and Lloyd Dobbler on crack.

Posted by: scotty on November 2, 2006 6:28 AM

I read Moby Dick in college, and I hated it. Like, throw it across the wall hated. There was nothing in the book that engaged me and much that annoyed the hell out of me.

Looking back, it's entirely possible that my professor ruined the book for me (and the class, because the only people who liked it had read it in full before that semester). I had one of those "Every Book is About GOD" and "There's a Christ Figure in Every Novel" guys who reduced every book from every author in every time period down to "alienation and redemption". I'm sorry, but there's only so single-layer analogy you can take in five months before vomiting.

Come to think of it, I hated every book I read with that dude. Interesting.

Posted by: Dorothy on November 2, 2006 7:43 AM

"If you're not going to read a classic, I'd suggest you go ahead and not read Ulysses." -Dave

Personally, the worst book I have ever tried to struggle through is "Gravity's Rainbow". Talk about a literary mindfuck.

Posted by: StampyDurst on November 2, 2006 8:18 AM

I think this is great! I would love to read what you have to say about it everyday. I read it in GAH! NINTH GRADE English! Apparently, the honors class was supposed to be able to read literature that most don't read until college (including Ulysses), but I have to say, it was 15 years ago, but I remember I liked parts of it. I like his actually writing. Maybe not the subject matter, but his descriptions are really interesting.

If you get enough readers who have read it and liked it and can help with allusions and things that you don't understand (like the orchard thieves) then I bet you will like it at least a little.

As for professors ruining books, I read The Scarlet Letter in high school and HATED it. Then in college I had to read it again, and because of the professor and her take on things (and the fact that she didn't delve into EVERY SINGLE PIECE OF SYMBOLISM, and didn't think you should) I loved it! So it really all depends on how a classic is framed, I think.

Good Luck!

Posted by: Ty on November 2, 2006 8:28 AM

Am I the only one that does not know what NaNoReMo is?

Posted by: Anonymous on November 2, 2006 9:16 AM

The best way to get through Moby Dick is to be hospitalized, and don't let any friends or family sneak you in any *good* books. Or even L. L. Bean catalogs. Nothing makes the life story of an Oxford shirt seem exciting like Moby Dick all giving you the skunk eye. As for Ulysses, well, there is nothing in this world or the next that would help you get through that crap.

Posted by: Cookie on November 2, 2006 9:40 AM

Why, "National Novel Reading Month," of course.

Posted by: Matthew on November 2, 2006 9:42 AM

This is an awesome take on the other NaMo activities! My college English professor made buttons for us if we finished Moby Dick: "I can't believe I read the whole thing!" I earned my button, but was so delirious by the end that I can't remember much about it. I recall I liked it enough to want to try it again. Maybe next November.

Posted by: juliloquy on November 2, 2006 9:47 AM

None of you are encouraging me to ever attempt this beast. I read Robinson Crusoe a few years ago, and found it amazingly dull. This sounds worse.

Posted by: Keith on November 2, 2006 10:05 AM

This will not surprise anyone who knows me, but I've read Moby-Dick. More than once. I own multiple copies, including some in languages I can't read. I own something like seventeen or eighteen different books _about_ Herman Melville and Moby-Dick. I know when to use a hyphen between "Moby" and "Dick." I could recite the entire first page for you right now if you wanted, which most of you clearly don't. I like the book so much I (very briefly) considered naming my son Herman. If I could, I'd replace every Gideon Bible in a hotel room with a copy of Moby-Dick.

Just had to get that off my chest.

Posted by: James on November 2, 2006 10:38 AM

I'm glad most of the people here liked the book. I've read it last month and enjoyed it very much. The chapter about the whiteness of the whale is indeed one of the best... And I'm going to follow Dave's advice and not read Ulysses.

Posted by: Victor on November 2, 2006 11:10 AM

I've actually read both "Moby Dick" and "Les Miserables" for pleasure-- the first because I love nautical books, and the second because I remembered enjoying the play.

First of all, you don't know what a whale is when you read "Moby Dick," because if you think you do, you'll be approaching it with the mistaken impression that a whale is some sort of mammal. In the book, it is of course a large oily fish that just happens to be a weirdo lung-breather. Also, once they get to sea, it's pure nautical adventure and you get to learn about the wonders of whaling and seamanship, because the damn titular whale takes its time to show up. I could say how much time, but that would be spoiling. Anyway, you've got to let go of the Moby Dick obsession for a while and concentrate on the important things like knots and bible-leaves and buckets of spermaceti and virgins and gams and seabirds and cast-aways and coffins and all that.

Second, Les Miserables has, in most editions but sadly not the one I was reading, several chapters that're so superfluous to the plot that they are often elided from the middle and appended at the end. Two that come to mind are the Paris Sewers chapter (which I found interesting, and wondered at the level of research, as I do every time I watch "Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe") and the Criminal Argot chapter which, since it never explains how to cut open, hollow out, thread, and re-close a franc coin with a tiny sawblade inside, you should skip the damn chapter and just assume that the whole thing is possible, so much time do the Parisian crooks have to work on such problems. But by the time you've reached either of these chapters, it's because you've read the first 80 pages about the Bishop of Digne to set up his single relevent (but without the setup, completely beyond belief) charitable act that sets the plot in motion. After that, the Bishop disappears from the book except for the mention of his death many years later. So you should've known what you were in for.

By the way, if you find that reading a heavy-duty novel in a month is too much, but you still want to be cultured by exposure to the classics, try Dailylit.com, a site that mails you a complete book in digestable chunks, daily or weekdaily or a few times a week. Yesterday I started Dickens' "Bleak House" and should be done around the beginning of 2008.

Posted by: LAN3 on November 2, 2006 11:46 AM

I don't have anything meaningful to add to the comments, mostly because I've never read Moby Dick and probalby never will. Still, I wanted to tell you that I loved this post and think that tackling the book (and posting about it) is an excellent idea. Good luck, Matthew!

Posted by: Kate on November 2, 2006 4:15 PM

Not to ruin anything for you, but in about 8,000 pages you're going to come to the crux of the matter, and one of my absolute favorite literary quotes of all time...unfortunately you'll have to wade through approximately 7,891 detailed descriptions of various parts of whale anatomy to get to it, but it's totally worth it. The conclusion that " 'tis very like a whale," is just one of the most priceless (to me) lines in all of modern literature.

Secret teenage confession: My dream back then was to own a bookstore, and the name of that quaint shop (this was in the days before the Big Box bookstores) would be, "Very Like A Whale."


It would have been a really funny Melville joke if you'd said, "Read _Moby-Dick_? I would prefer not to."

Posted by: Belinda on November 2, 2006 5:21 PM

you have quite a month ahead of you--i read about half of moby dick, and then just put its ass down. (with an enormous sigh of relief...) this is, however, a fabulous idea to guarantee a post a day for at LEAST a month! way to go!

Posted by: jackie on November 2, 2006 6:19 PM

I like the "compelte" version of Moby Dick myself... Good for you, though, Matthew... You seem an intellectual sort, which is a good thing.

Posted by: CrankMama on November 2, 2006 8:00 PM

Thank you Matthew for prescreening this for all of us that never got around to it either so we don't have to suffer. I shall do you a solid as well and tell you to also avoid anything written by Oscar Wilde (one can take only so many gay English fops dramatically flinging themselves dramatically on to chaise lounges, dramatically) and specifically Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Joseph Heller's $40 word-itis made that thing as tedious as Moby Dick seems to be. It felt like SAT test prep. Just read the Wikipedia entries and you're golden.

btw, anyone with me on starting a petition to get all these bloggers to stop with the infuriating first two letter abbreviation silliness (see NaNoWrMo et al)? I'm seeing this sorta thing more and more. Are ya'all just that busy?

Posted by: HDC on November 2, 2006 8:21 PM

James Joyce was once asked to summarize his work Ulysses in a few sentances.

his reply?

If I could do that, I wouldn't of had to write it.

I like a man who can recognize that he has create a monster of a book. And that it was no more pleasureable to write, really.

Good luck finishing Moby Dick. I've never even attempted it.

Posted by: emily on November 2, 2006 10:11 PM

Moby Dick is still on my to-read list. Even with the mixed reviews here, I've read other Melville and enjoyed it, so I can't see why not to read this one too. Wish I'd known this sooner as it would be fun to read and blog along with someone on the same book.

Posted by: Debra on November 3, 2006 4:20 AM

"Read _Moby-Dick_? I would prefer not to."

Okay, now THAT'S funny!

Posted by: Dorothy on November 3, 2006 6:37 AM

Another message of support from a member of the "HAVE" read it club. I thought the book was entertaining enough, and I certainly found Quequeeg to be a memorable character. I think it's important to read the classics to expand your knowledge base, vocabulary and intellectual horizons, but I don't think any contemporary reader should expect to be electrified by reading the literature of a bygone era. I am not suggesting it CAN'T happen; rather, I suggest such an engagement of the reader is simply less likely than it would be for contemporary literature.

Anyway, I liked the book and would recommend (hey what the hell else are you going to use teh Intarwebs for if not "the giving of unsolicited advice") anything by Dickens for future endeavours.

Posted by: junior on November 3, 2006 8:38 AM

You know, until I saw your update on this post, I assumed you were being facetious and deadpan when you said you had no idea what "orchard thieves" was.

Posted by: Country Mouse on November 3, 2006 8:43 AM

James' comment is best: "If I could, I'd replace every Gideon Bible in a hotel room with a copy of Moby-Dick."

I can't understand all these Moby Dick naysayers. I read it as a child (only four years after I learned English) and re-read most of it four years ago. I loved it and found it hilarious! And that line, "More Brokeback than humpback" is so dead-on!

This was a fun, fun, fun novel!

Posted by: maktaaq on November 9, 2006 9:04 PM