A few years back, Woody Allen’s stand-up routines from the early 1960s were released and they are worth a listening. One joke in particular always stuck with me. It’s simple and absurd — Allen’s medium. Riffing on the topic of the then-popular speed reading movement, Allen tells a nightclub audience how he took a speed reading class and found it fantastic. His first book was “War and Peace.” Using the newfound technique, he got through the book in an hour. What did he learn? “It’s a novel about Russia.”
Allen could have used the same punch line with “Moby Dick.” It’s a novel about a whale, until it isn’t?
Now summer reading lists usually contain books about albino assassins doing the dirty work of Roman clerics, a government agent saving the world from Nazis who have saved Hitler’s brain or the 478th Stephen King novel. To suggest something as complex and hefty as “Moby Dick” to take to the poolside bar is probably why I haven’t been asked to compile a summer reading list and offer this sans solicitation.
“Moby Dick” may not pack the punch of the ultimate ocean-themed summer book “Jaws,” but it is so much more than a melodramatic story about a big fish (a mammal, actually). Like Shakespeare or Dante or Stephen King for that matter, “Moby Dick” was written to be read by the general public and not condemned to a bookshelf collecting dust with a spine that has never been cracked.
Even though the story is written in a mid-19th century style that takes some getting used to, and even though it may go on for a few pages more than it has to on the anatomy of a whale, so much of this great book is accessible and worthwhile — and think how smart you’ll look with this book in your hands lounging by the pool.
Thanks to popular culture you can ease into the prose by watching director John Huston’s 1956 movie “Moby Dick,” which starred Gregory Peck as Ahab and Richard Basehart as Ishmael. Neither a commercial or critical success, the film retains a strange otherworldly beauty and captures so much of the essence of the story.
Author Herman Melville wasn’t trying to impress critics or English professors; he was trying to tell a tale and make a living. Sadly, when “Moby Dick” was first published it didn’t set the world on fire and, ironically, it was English professor types who did latch onto the book and helped make it the classic it is today. Sadly, the acclaim came years after Melville’s death.
There are so many undercurrents and themes in this book that you can basically run with whatever strikes your fancy. For me, it has always been the spiritual aspect of the book and the ramifications of unrelenting hate and a refusal to accept divine mercy or divine instruction by a man so filled with hubris he infects nearly his entire crew with his insanity and, by doing so, reaps a bitter harvest.
Telling such a large story using the first person structure of an inexperienced young man looking for adventure — and having all of that young man’s own personal prejudices exposed through his own self-assured words — makes the book sound distinctively modern.
In a world of LOLs, BTWs and emojis, it is also refreshing to read English that was constructed with beauty and power. The first time I read “Moby Dick,” one sentence in particular grabbed me and has haunted me almost as much as the big white whale did Ahab. I look at the sentence every now and then, not just to remind me of my limited communication skills, but to contemplate the contents.
“All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evils to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.”
If you think those words only speak toward a crazy one-legged sea captain intent on revenge in 1851, think again next time you hear about other forms of monomania that lead to cars being driven through crowds of pedestrians and politicians getting shot at early morning baseball practices.