Book of da Week: Moby-Dick or the Whale by Herman Melville

Moby-Dick, or the Whale - Deluxe Edition
The impressive deluxe edition for the timeless classic.

It’s the big one! One of the most celebrated novels of all time – Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. Okay, so this epic is over 600 sprawling pages. How can we do it justice in this brief review? We can’t, which is why we’ll cover it in colossal detail another time on our other blog Moonshake Books, but, hopefully, today we can convince some of you to give it a whirl.

For now, we’re here to sing the praises of this phenomenal piece of work. For years we put ourselves off reading it, believing it would be a tedious chore slogging through what we presumed would be lots of verbose profundity about life and battling a whale. How wrong we were. Meville’s text is a slice of genius and it remains a staggering achievement, a brilliant work of human imagination which also stands as a historical record and good old-fashioned revenge story. What more could you ask for?

Moby-Dick: A Troubled Ascendancy

Moby- Dick, or the Whale
I say!

Published in 1851, it wasn’t exactly a smash hit. It launched in the UK first in October and many critics trashed it one. One reviewer in London wrote: “The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed.” The London Spectator also stated some of Captain Ahab’s rambling discourse deserved skipping.

In the UK, it sold a mere 500 copies. It did better in America but was the writer’s biggest flop. Unfortunately, this led Melville down a negative personal path which seemed to end his creativity due to alcoholism. When he died in 1891, the book was no longer in print and he must surely have been frustrated with this outcome – his masterpiece turfed to one side and considered a joke.

The Comeback!

Arguably, it was simply too far ahead of its time and couldn’t find an audience. Even now, Melville’s writing style (more on that in a bit) is otherworldly in its extravagance. We can only imagine the author was an excitable man with a wild imagination as each paragraph has a lyrical quality behind it, which is remarkable going for a 206,000 word novel.

Thankfully, after his death it gradually found an audience. By the 1920s a revival kicked in and during the rest of the 20th century, Moby-Dick slowly crept into the public conscience and is now hailed as one of the greatest achievements in literary history.

It’s kind of a rite of passage for any modern reader – at some stage, you have to take on Moby-Dick and, by heck, when you get there it’s some journey! What’s in store if you’re up to this monumental challenge?

The Book!

“Call me Ishmael” is the famous opening line and, from then on, the reader is taken on a remarkable journey. One of its defining modern features is how it’s essentially a historical record of whaling in the 19th century, as well as being an exceptional novel, which it covers in obsessive detail.

Herman Melville had worked at sea and the incident with the white whale is based on a true story. This adds some serious clout as the author knew what he was on about and the information you’ll read is where the tale doubles up as a historical record of a (hopefully) soon abolished practice.

What makes Moby-Dick truly special, however, are the memorable characters, the sense of humour, and Melville’s berserk writing style. The writing style! Tone of voice, eh? It’s like it’s been zapped in from another planet – Ishmael has the most flamboyant way of communicating we think we’ve ever read in any novel ever. You can’t help but get wrapped up in the excitement of the adventure due to his wildly eccentric, fantastical rambling.

The characters you meet are highly memorable, too, and will stick with you for life. Whether it’s Queequeg (there’s initial confusion with Ishmael and his future friend, which almost leads to Queequeg butchering him in a hotel room), Captain Ahab (the equally brilliant Quint from Jaws is surely based on him), or Ishmael himself, you’re mixed up with a batch of eccentric, enthralling blokes on a mad quest to wipe out a white whale.

Take the Trip

Whilst the book is about one man’s insane quest to wreak revenge, Moby-Dick is also a complex look into a diverse range of topics ranging from life, death, religion, obsession, social standing, symbolism, the human condition, perception, character, personal resolve, and peculiar asides which don’t pertain to the story in any way.

Whilst modern students study and fans pour over it with wild attention to detail (one fanatic has even illustrated every page of the novel), don’t begin the journey lightly. It’s one mighty undertaking, but it’s more than worth the journey, me hearties. Clear a gap in your schedule and tick it off your list – it’ll make you a better person.

Penguin Classics: Deluxe Edition

Moby-Dick Deluxe Edition
Razor sharp!

Our brilliant Penguin Classics edition of Moby-Dick is a deluxe edition. Pretty accurate, we feel. In the foreword, Nathaniel Philbrick (who has also written a book explaining why people should Moby-Dick) enthusiastically recalls his first experience of reading the novel, before laying down the reasons why you shouldn’t be a wretched sinner and avoid it.

In this edition of Moby-Dick or, The Whale, the pages feature serrated edges! It’s a lovely touch. There are also some brilliant bits of artwork on the front and rear covers, inside sleeves, and there’s a whole compendium of details about whaling from the era, such as diagrams of the tools which were used.

If you’re new to Moby-Dick then you might as well go all out for it and choose this edition. It adds some serious gravitas to what you’re reading. You’ll feel like a proper clever clogs as you wade on through the flamboyant madness – stand there whilst commuting or before your family and revel in how much better it makes you above everyone else. Why not? It’s Christmas after all.

5 comments

  1. Yes, a book I’ve actually read. I enjoyed the experience & may read it again one day. I found your history of the book itself, very fascinating. I had no idea that it sold so poorly, yet went on to become a classic, which is a fate of many books. Well done review!!!!!

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