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moby dick, or, the whale

18 june 2014

There was a time when I was fanatically fussy about the texts of the literary works that I read. You could no more get me to read a sketchily-produced edition of a public-domain classic like Moby-Dick than you could get me to use cheap blended olive oil. It had to be at least Harold Beaver's Penguin edition for casual reading; for any kind of academic use, Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford's monumental Northwestern-Newberry edition was the only option.

Technology has eroded my standards. When I downloaded Moby-Dick recently, I had no idea how the text that reached my phone was established, and I cared less. It was light and free and if it was full of lacunae and dubious as to its accidentals, it sure beat lugging around the massive Northwestern-Newberry – which I doubt I even have anymore, lost in the triage of some move or another as just too cumbersome.

I recall the Parker/Hayford edition as being obsessive in attention to hyphenation – and to be fair, it might conceivably be important to interpreters to know whether Melville intended a compound word to be hyphenated, or whether the hyphen might be due merely to the compound straddling a line- or page-break. Take the title, for instance: is it Moby-Dick, or Moby Dick? Scholars opt for the former, but the random text I downloaded from iBooks earlier this year seems happy with the latter. Does it make a difference? Am I descending the slippery slope of scholarly imprecision by tolerating such hyphenlessness?

Scanned from somewhere, my telephone text of Moby Dick is probably none too close in the details to what Herman Melville wrote or Parker and Hayford established. But Hershel Parker himself, in Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons, argued that it's probably wrong to think of the texts of classics as existing in some nominal authorial perfection till corrupted in the transmitting process. Instead, getting words from writer to reader is always a messy process, and the writer himself among its messier constituents. I'm not saying we should give up on textual quality and start reading the classics in any old photcopied, .pdf'ed, and rescanned squirrelly e-book version. But there are always some tradeoffs when you read books, and accuracy for convenience is one of them. I don't think I'm betraying Herman Melville by reading a text of Moby Dick that gets some hyphens or even some words wrong.

Anyway, as with many of the loooong books I've been reading lately, the iPhone reduced Moby Dick to the size of a thin, light pack of cards. I've read this novel more times than I can recall, but never so effortlessly. I've also read it several times silently and at least twice, all the way through, aloud, and I'll bear witness that it's a splendid text either way.

Like so many very great works of art, Moby Dick changes every time you encounter it. I go back and forth on whether Ahab is admirable or evil – which means going back and forth on whether the whale is evil or admirable. This time, I was reading the novel with someone who consistently takes the side of animals over people, and I discerned far more animal-rights thought in Melville than I had before. But he's hardly some sort of proto-Peter-Singer. The whale is still a monster and the hunt is a battle between us and them, us distinctly being the human race. Ahab just pursues the hunt beyond reasonable and necessary limits.

This time through, I was struck more than ever by Melville's ability to neglect plot for hundreds of pages at a time. For a book that offers stemwinding storytelling when it wants to, Moby Dick pays it no attention sometimes. The final three chapters – much of which, even at that, are taken up with Ahab's dramatic monologues – are stunningly exciting. So is "The Town-Ho's Story," and flashes of fish story elsewhere. But I felt myself at times, this time, like an undergraduate wondering when the author was going to get to the point. Fortunately I love Moby Dick's cetology, and its exposition of the craft of whaling, and I even dig the constant morals that point Melville's informational chapters. But Moby Dick does highlight that sustained narrative was not always Melville's strong suit. He's known as a superb short-story writer, and few of his long, loosely-plotted novels are really worth re-reading.

What makes Moby Dick continually worth re-reading is that Melville misses no opportunity to turn things up to eleven. If there's a chance to make the prose purpler or the conceit more extreme, he never dodges it. There's an element of taste involved here, for sure. You either appreciate such verbal, rhetorical, and philosophical excesses, or you can't stand them – and I'm not using "appreciate" here in an objective sense. I think Moby Dick is a classic, but I'm quite willing to concede that readers of perfectly refined taste might not be able to stand it at all.

Hence the curious status of Moby Dick as a book that many literary professionals, writers and teachers alike, have never read and never plan to. There are classics that everybody likes (Jane Austen), and then there are classics that exist in people's imaginary libraries (Melville, Joyce, Proust), but most of us won't get around to reading.

Melville has a lot of annoying idiosyncracies, and they're all on display in Moby Dick. He'll drop into blank verse in every other paragraph, a trait he shares with Dickens and with some contemporary novelists, like Jim Crace.

wild craft went plunging towards its flying mark;
by all these things, their hearts were bowled along.
The wind that made great bellies of their sails … (Chapter 134)
Counterintuitively, this tic does not make one's prose "poetic." If the blank verse dropped into was any good, the author would have written a poem instead. It's sometimes harder in English to avoid blank verse, especially if you've just spent the weekend reading Paradise Lost, which I'd reckon was a popular diversion of Herman Melville's. And it's not just a "lazy" habit from the composition point of view; it's distracting, faux-portentous, and violates the general verbal rule that says one must draw rhythms from one's speech – or else incur the reader's fearful wrath :)

And then you add in digressions, philosophical rambles, convoluted periphrases, and the loosest of plot structures … and basically, you have the profile that makes novels like Mardi and Pierre barely readable at best. What makes Moby Dick not just readable but among the world's great novels is its focus on the whale – well, if not always on "The Whale," who seems to disappear for chapters on end along with his pursuer Ahab, on the whole whaly species that he's a metonym for. Instead of wandering among the islands as in Mardi, or hinting at secret passions that can't be broached as in Pierre, Melville here in Moby Dick has an intense focus on terms of theme that excuses his extreme blurriness in terms of plot, character, and ideology.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick, or, The Whale. 1851. iBooks electronic edition.