Monday, March 12, 2012

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Publisher: Books on Tape, 2002

Read by: Paul Boehmer

From goodreads: Moby Dick was first published in Britain, as The Whale, in 1851. It is an extraordinary book, made up of 135 chapters, all written in a variety of styles--from sailors' slang to biblical prophecy and Shakespearian rant. Ishmael, the narrator, tells of the adventures of Captain Ahab in his relentless quest to seek revenge on the white whale that bit off his leg. Full of allegory and symbolism, Moby Dick is an epic tragedy of tremendous dramatic power and narrative drive. This large-scale adaptation, recorded in America, skillfully reproduces the unique mixture of adventure, myth, history, and philosophy in Melville's epic tale.

This is one of those epic classics that some might find daunting to review, let alone read. Not so with me; I plan to tell you my uncultured, ambivalent thoughts on this book. I was fascinated by parts of this book and bored with other parts. Herman Melville packed A LOT into this book. It is not compact, staying on story line.

Moby Dick
is narrated through Ishmael, a kind of gentlemen whaler. About half the talking cast are non-Caucasian characters, which I believe was pretty unusual in the 1850s. The most talented whalers and the guys who get the bulk of the work done are Toshtego, Queequeg, Daggoo, and Fedallah. Starbuck, Flask, and Stubb also assist Cpt. Ahab in his obsessive quest for the White Whale, Moby Dick. They go traipsing over the oceans, asking for news of Moby Dick and slaughtering other whales for oil when they come upon them.

Point of fascination: Moby Dick managed to take Ahab's leg in a previous engagement and is perceived thence forward as a malevolent beast with ill-intent towards all men. Really? Some dude commands a ship full of harpooners bent on bleeding me to death, I might defend myself to say the least. Through out this book, I found myself having to set aside my cultural norms concerning the whaling industry and hunting in general. This is a good example; the idea that man reigns supreme and that all other beasts were put on Earth to serve him in some manner, including rolling over and dying with some ease and minimal fight, is a thought that quirks my eyebrow. (Just to be clear, I have butchered my own animals and I am not squeamish about it; but if I get injured during the butchering I know it is due to my stupidity and not because the animal is malevolent).

The book is told in a mix of plain, easy speech, rough sailor stories and jokes (my favorites), and poetical, Shakespearean-like monologues (mostly by Ahab). This mix gave the different characters their own voices but also kind of broke up a smooth telling. The detail of the whaling industry of the time was fascinating. Since there is almost no such industry today, these details are not something I have bumped into before. Whale oil had a number of uses - perfumes, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, anointing kings and religious leaders. The bones of the whale were also used in women's undergarments, as structural and decorative bits of ships, and for Ahab's fake leg. I learned quite a bit from this book, and that is always a plus.

The voice actor Paul Boehmer did an excellent job tackling this 20 disc classic. He pulled off the changes in speech patterns among the crew very well and his even voice for the story narrator Ishmael kept me going in the slower parts.

+++: This book pushed me out of my comfort zone, one of the whalers nearly dies in a very disgusting way, there was a surprise ending.

---: Limited female rolls (but it is an 1800s sailing story), depiction of minorities, while progressive for original publication date, is a bit behind the times for today, some sections go way off in an author's monologue (like that whole chapter on the color white).


  1. This is a really great review. Moby Dick is the Book-I-Should-Read-But-Probably-Never-Will, but I love reading people's opinions on it. They are so diverse. However, if I would ever get around to it, I would do like you and listen to the audiobook. (It's the only way I got around to 1984.)

    New follower, too, by the way. :-)

  2. Welcome! Hope you enjoy future posts. I agree with you that audio is the way to go with some of these classics. I can keep my hands busy while only part of my brain is engaged during the slower parts.