Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Call me Ishmael

So i just finished reading the classic American novel, Herman Mellville's 1851 Moby Dick (or The Whale).

Like many of the books I'm reading these days, I read this one in electronic format on my Nokia N800. The nice thing about ebooks is that you can get most of the classics for free, which is great because anyone who's spent time overseas can tell you that books can be an expat's best friend*, and they're not always so easy to find - so it's great to have thousands available whenever you'd like from the web.

The story of Moby Dick is pretty simple. Captain Ahab, who has only one leg from a previous encounter with Moby Dick - a gigantic white sperm whale - is hell bent on killing this whale no matter the cost. After sailing the whole globe, the whaling ship encounters Moby Dick and attacks him for three days in a row. After successively worse casualties, the story concludes when Moby Dick attacks the ship and sinks it. Everybody but the author Ishmael dies. The end.

There are two things you need to know:
  1. Sperm whales are awesome (also they are the largest toothed animal in the world)
  2. This book is great.
The author spends more than half the novel discussing details that have very little to do with the story, such as the way the rope that attaches to the harpoon is made, or how it's controlled, or the anatomy of the whale, or the way you extract the oil from the killed whale. You could skip every word from these chapters and not miss anything from the story. And this is probably why the critics hated this book so much when it was first released.

According to Wikipedia:
By the time of his death he had been almost completely forgotten, but his longest novel, Moby-Dick — largely considered a failure during his lifetime, and most responsible for Melville's fall from favor with the reading public — was recognized in the 20th century as one of the chief literary masterpieces of both American and world literature.
But, and I can't tell you why, it is these chapters that go on and on about the whale's head or the wonderful side stories - such as the cooking of Stubb's whale-steak - that make this such an incredible book. I'm not a literary critic, but if there ever was a book that made me want to join a book club... this would be it. Look at me, I'm incoherently blogging about it for heaven's sakes!

There's a couple really special passages in the book that I'll list here, and you can comment if you've got your own to share:
  1. Ishmael's "marriage" to Queequeg
  2. Chapter 26 - Knights and Squires
  3. Stubb making the cook preach to the sharks
  4. Tempering the harpoon in the pagan's blood
Ok that's enough. Get out there and read it.

(*As a side note, it seems like expats read more than your average American.)

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