Read a Classic

Call me Ishmael.

At school, we had to read some classics, but I think they try to stay somewhat current to keep kids interested. “Classic” for my high school was Catcher in the Rye, 1984, and Lord of the Flies. I had taken a Shakespeare class and thoroughly enjoyed seeing how relatable the human condition is, though it does require research into outdated language and historical context. Likewise with things like the Iliad and the Odyssey. Perhaps a little less relatable, sure, but not completely foreign. All of that long preamble is to say that there are so many classic works of fiction that I never read. I feel like it’s a cultural blind spot of mine.

List item: Read a Classic work of Fiction

Step one in this endeavor was to make a selection. I checked out some web sites declaring to be “the classics everyone should read” and compared them for commonalities to select from. The list of books I have NOT read is super long, giving me plenty of options: Jane Eyre, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Scarlet Letter, Crime and Punishment, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities, Anna Karenina, Emma, Great Expectations, etc… This is going to be tough. I decided to target the nineteenth century.

For reasons that I’m not entirely sure about, I decided to read Herman Melville’s 1851 novel, Moby Dick. It seems like one of those stories that we just know about- it’s an allegory of Ahab’s decent into madness and the pursuit of desires that go to far- but that I actually have no intimate knowledge of. Also, I’ve never seen any adaptation to film or stage that would compete with my “starting from nothing” desires.

First step was to acquire the book. I figured it would have more meaning if I were to find an older volume, not some fancy paperback with modern design cover graphics. So, I’ve ordered the oldest volume I could find (and also afford), a 1926 edition hardcover from Ebay.

Right off the bat, I relate to Ishmael. Listen to this description of his depression fits:

“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, 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’ve been trying to look-up all the colloquialisms and references I don’t understand, which is both helpful and hindrance [example: in the quote above, ‘hypos’ is shorthand for the classic definition of hypochondria: “a morbid state of mind, characterized by general depression, melancholy, or low spirits, for which there is no real cause.“]. However, it’s worth it because it’s more about understanding the classic than racing to finish.

I, too, am constantly grim about the mouth and my soul is always a damp and drizzly November. Preach, brother Ishmael! Lord knows that I am regularly looking to methodically knock people’s hats off!


Inside cover – 1926 Modern Library version

It always feels like jumping in a time machine when you read books from long ago that connect with your experience so well. The human condition links us all across the eons. While I can’t relate to wanting to be a sailor, I can empathize with the feeling of restlessness that inspires people to do something drastic, like signing up for YEARS at sea. This book was written in 1851, nearly 170 years ago, but I can relate to Ishmael in this way.

One thing I appreciate are short chapters. Time is precious and my compulsive behavior doesn’t allow me to pause mid-chapter, which can suck the enjoyment from reading. I’ll give Meville credit for brevity of container structure. In a book (my version) told over 565 pages, it is broken into 135 chapters!

There were so many passages that I’d meant to make note of because they were clever, or funny, or interesting. I’d always been told how dry this book is, and it certainly is at points (like chronicling all the various types of whales and dolphins in phone-directory like cataloging), but there are a lot of memorable moments or lines. The insults flung while the owners of the Pequod (Bildad & Peleg) haggle with Ishmael on his points (payment percentage) is something I want to memorize to yell at my co-workers: “Out of the cabin, ye canting, drab-coloured son of a wooden gun—a straight wake with ye!” or this gem from a chapter describing who most naturalist illustrations were done by people who had never seen a whale with their own eyes: “In a word, Frederick Cuvier’s Sperm Whale is not a Sperm Whale, but a squash.” Fantastic.

Thanks to an extended holiday break from work and visitation to and from family, I had more time to dig into the book, finally finishing it last night. I have several take away thoughts. The simplest being that I really enjoyed Moby Dick. It is, as warned, very dry at times, since Melville applies layer upon layer of details- from fishing laws, to biology lessons, to the multi-faceted vocation of a ship’s carpenter (who else would perform dentistry on board?). I walked away feeling that I had spent time on the sea. Deeper than that, however, I identified a few categories that were surprisingly delightful:

Relatability – As mentioned above, for a 170 year old novel, I did not expect to relate to it as much as I did. As a video game developer who has been doing it long enough to remember the days when a disc was shipped as-is (not continually patched, or kept alive by an equally live team), and as someone who has had very similar conversations with construction workers, this line felt close to home: “I like to take in hand none but clean, virgin, fair-and-square mathematical jobs, something that regularly begins at the beginning, and is at the middle when midway, and comes at the conclusion; not a cobbler’s job, that’s at an end in the middle, and at the beginning at the end.“. One of the reoccurring themes seen in the book is the idea of prophesy. Seeing ahead. Foreshadowing. All elements seen in many forms. One such tells the story of the Nantucket whaler, Jeroboam, who’s crew became cult-like followers of a fellow crew member who proclaimed himself a prophet, leaving the ship’s captain impotent of command. This is not too dissimilar to how Ahab controls his crew and undercut’s the rational Starbuck’s authority.

Multiculturalism – As I was reading, I also happened to be listening to a podcast (can’t remember which one, because a couple were simultaneously touching on a similar idea, as is often the case within the zeitgeist) that was talking about how we like to think of our modern society as the epitome of multiculturalism, but international shipping of the 17th and 18th century was really where all cultures intermingled in a more even playing field. I say ‘more’ because racism was always prevalent and is certainly on display in Moby Dick. For example, Pip, the black cabin-boy who turns mad-prophet (akin King Lear’s Fool), is told straight-up by Stubb, that he won’t rescue him if he falls overboard again: “We can’t afford to lose whales by the likes of you; a whale would sell for thirty times what you would, Pip, in Alabama.“). The slave trade as ribbing is undeniably dark. However, in a world where everyone on board relies on everyone else, and where working together is the only mandate, the members of this Nantucket whaler are distinctly multicultural. The four harpooners, arguably the most important job on the voyage, where all of ethnic minorities: Queequeg (“the cannibal”) is of fictional Polynesian origins, Tashtego is native American, Daggoo is African, and Fedallah (aka ‘Parsee’) is Indian Zoroastrian (who lived in China). Fedallah is seen in the most negative light owing mostly due to his secretive addition to the voyage and mysterious nature, but the other three harpooners are revered by all aboard. Indeed, when Queequeg takes ill, the ship all but stops functioning. It’s kind of touching. And although the book doesn’t mention it, this is the environment where sailors from different cultures would join each other with music from their cultures to combine and create new genres and styles. Whaling ships as cultural melting pots.

Ahab – Having not read the book before, I assumed it would be more centered upon Ahab. But the fact is, in terms of pure page counts, he’s not as prevalent as I’d have thought. Central, for sure, but in a book at is 565 pages long, he’d only appeared in a few pivotal scenes up until around 100 pages left (then he’s the dominant force). He’s got some really great dialogue, including the line I know from Ricardo Montalban’s utterance as Khan from the Star Trek movie: “from Hell’s heart I stab at thee!” (the full line is even more epic: “Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”). Ahab is such a haunted character. During a particular lucid moment with Starbuck, he mentions that in 40 years (he’s 58 in the book) he’s only been onshore for three years. By 18 he had already harpooned a whale! His obsession reminds me of the conversations of late with my mother-in-law, who is showing signs of dementia. She is capable and so, so smart, but her brain has created its own set of ‘truths’ that run counter to the world around her. Reading Ahab’s dialogue, I find it so relatable in this regard. His reality is delusional, his behavior irrational. The worst (and once again relatable) element being that he wins over the crew, undercutting his Captain’s ability to guide the ship responsibly. Can you imagine a leader coming to power who has rabid support despite being clearly delusional? Shutter to think…

All told, I am extremely glad I took the time to read the book after all this time. It was made all the better by taking the time to look-up words, phrases, and places to get a better understanding. I now understand why Moby Dick is such an enduring classic.

Difficulty: Just do it.

Lessons learned:

  • Preconceived notions are anchors – It would be (and is) really easy to think of works of art from a bygone day as out of touch or somehow not relevant to our modern lives. Human nature, however, is consistent and art reflects that, regardless of its origin. Stop thinking that now is the pinnacle of knowledge and give the old some respect.
  • Invest in research – It breaks momentum to stop reading to look up a word or phrase, but your understanding of older (or foreign) works will only be enhanced. Imagine how difficult it would be for someone from 1851 to read your dumb Tweets.
  • Wrap your experience with authenticity – I don’t know why, but getting an older version of the book enhanced my experience of reading. It might be that there was a more of a sense of respect of purposefulness, like listening to music on vinyl records, where there is a ritual involved. Whatever the reason, if I just had a modern, disposable paperback, I don’t think I would have have the same reverence. It’s a form of “getting into it” that comes up a lot.