Saturday, 9 April 2016

Cutting down Moby Dick

I've just come across a lovely essay discussing Moby Dick: In Half the Time.
"... There is nothing self-indulgent about Moby Dick. Ishmael, the narrator, is self-effacing and rarely speaks about himself. He always step backs, placing himself in the vast perspective of the subject matters of the novel. It is one of the least egotistical books I’ve read.
Self-indulgent, however, is a word I’ve often heard lately from readers and reviewers—and editors and agents. Pretentious is another. Again, I’m not sure what they mean, but these words seem to be applied to anything that taxes them in content or form, or slows them down, or stretches their frame of reference.
If these editors have their say—and they have—this is my greatest regret about writing today, that we can’t have anxious, half-mad, much less fully mad, novels. For me it is enough cause to write one.
But the novel is an exploration of sanity, set against the serious madness of Ahab. Not mentioned in Gopnik’s comments is what buoys the narrative and helps keep madness in check, Melville’s generous democratic spirit and the expansive humor that infuse his book. Nor does Melville ever rest with certainty, or the appearance of certainty. He does not claim to have all the answers, or any of them. This, to me, is sanity, and Moby Dick is as sane as a novel can get.
Moby Dick is a ponderous book that promotes pondering. Is there a god or gods, thus a basis for religion? Is there any point to philosophy? Is our culture determined by anything other than our desires and their manifestations and perversions? I have no idea, but all of these are engaging esthetic propositions that give a novel depth and extension..."

"... These editors suffer, I fear, from a modern condition known as sanity. Fiction has made progress, and we have discovered its true structure. There is no longer any need to experiment with the form. Novels must be terse, direct, and clean, where motives and actions are what count most, perhaps all that count. Action speaks louder than thought and should be decisive and quick. There is no room for doubt or hesitation, no reason to question ourselves or look for other contexts. Our references should come from the things that most catch our attention at the moment, that most thrill. We know all we need to know now and have no need for looking back..."
Well, personally I think if you don't want to read the whole book, you might as well go for Cozy Classics and read Moby Dick in 12 words:
Sailor. Boat. Captain. Leg. Mad. Sail. Find. Whale. Chase. Smash. Sink. Float.


I've been watching over and over again this video of a young sperm whale: 

My blog's turning into a whale blog.


  1. Given the diversions in your posting, I feel the door is open to tell you about my most memorable _Moby-Dick_ experience: I first read it in a Classics Illustrated comic book. My goodness, I loved Classics Illustrated comic books when I was a mere whipper-snapper. They were my introduction to literature. So, even in my advanced years, I never disparage anyone for reading comic books. A person never knows what will happen to a reader beyond those simple diversions.

    1. I would disparage someone who reads only comic books though :p

  2. moby dick in ;the original was one of the books that opened my eyes to literature and it's possibilities. i would hate to see anyone short changed by a shortened version...

    1. Hello! Welcome to my blog.
      And yeah, I agree.
      Out of curiosity, I've just googled "How to pretend you've read Moby Dick" (you know, there are such guides on the internet), and got this:
      Not at all satisfying, compared to some articles I've read about how to pretend to have read Salinger, Dostoyevsky, etc. Putting aside the question of why on earth anybody should say they have read something they haven't, is it possible to do so with Moby Dick? I don't think it's easy.