Readin’ the Classics: Moby Dick–Total Bait and Switch

moby dickThis past Christmas, I received a Kindle Fire tablet/e-book reader. Which means any excuse I had to NOT read ‘the Classics’ has been obliterated.  They are there. For free. And surely they are classics for a reason, right?  Totally worth my time? I decided to go to the heart of the American classical canon and picked Moby Dick by Herman Melville. I was expecting a rip-roaring adventure on the high seas with adventure, atmospheric/moody descriptions, and a slice-of-life from a very specific time in American history.

I’m not the biggest fan of academic supposition so I tried to read Moby Dick as a novel; a straight-up, fiction story. It started quickly and got me hooked (see what I did there) but quickly turned into an interminable scientific description of EVERYTHING whales/whaling. I’m not talking about a few paragraphs talking about the size of a whale… I’m talking about chapters and chapters of whale physiological minutia. I guess this was necessary when it came out since very few people had actually SEEN a whale or were even aware of whale generalities… but I would say about 84% of the book was irrelevant scientific taxonomy. But, MAN, can I now tell you about whale skeletons and epidermal layers.

What killed me was Melville wrote in great length about each whales specific taxonomy and in each description he would say something to the effect of, “the whale is an amazing creature in its gentle nature and grace. It’s personality is playful and endearing… my respect for the creature is more immense than the beast itself… and it yields 18 barrels of oil.” Moby Dick is a book with lots and lots of graphic whale killing. I think that was the thing that bothered me the most. I know… what did I expect? I know. I totally get that whaling was a major business operation back then–but it was gruesome stuff. It makes me appreciate all the conservation efforts of the last few decades. I know that it still happens today as whale blubber is a major ingredient in cosmetics and soaps.

In the end, I can say that I’ve now read it. Who I really feel sorry for is the poor English Literature teachers who have to read papers by people who watched the movie instead of reading the book. The classic 1956 John Huston adaptation is a FAR superior experience… because it is a loose adaptation. But, there are some major plot differences and it would be immediately apparent whether or not you had read the book. So, in the end… great movie… meh book.

Tell me what you think? Am I wrong? Did Moby Dick change your life?


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