Moby Dick by Herman MelvilleUnabridged; narrated by BJ Harrison
I’ll call him Ishmael, but I’ll also call him a pretentious pontificate for whaling. I recently finished his narration of Captain Ahab’s journey for revenge against the great white whale—Moby Dick.
The tale is fantastic! However, the novel is punctuated with essays, soliloquies and explanations that interrupt the narrative in a most annoying way. This is why I’d recommend the abridged version unless you are super interested in the history, culture, economics, and mythology of whaling or you want to listen to this fantastic version of the audio book.
Basically, Melville uses Moby Dick to expectorate a volley of facts and anecdotes on whaling the way Hugo uses Les Miserables to pontificate on the conditions of the poor in 19th century France. The difference is that Hugo is using his essays on the Parisian sewers, Napoleon’s battles and the life of gamins to spur his readers into action against the injustices described in his narrative.
Also, Hugo’s tangential chapters all relate directly back to his story and the characters therein. Melville’s on the other hand do not directly help weave the characters and plot together. Instead, his theses are purely informational concerning whaling. They help a little bit in understanding the business and process, but they are not necessary for the reader to understand or comprehend the account of the Pequod’s search of Moby Dick.
That being said and the excess chapters aside, the actual story and Melville’s telling of it is absolutely wonderful. It is full of suspense and some of the most wonderful descriptions. A few chapters are very short, some just to set a scene. One of my favorite such moments is a short chapter telling us how various sailors are reacting to the doubloon tacked to the mast. He takes us into the mind of his diverse crew. Another is just a few lines putting on paper the sounds of the thunder and lightning using onomatopoeias.
The story is well framed and builds nicely. Along the journey, Ahab and his crew meet other ships and other fish including a giant squid. They experience a raging typhoon and long slow days without much action. Each adventure seem prepared me for the next until it concluded in a way I wasn’t expecting.
The book illustrates the diverse views and backgrounds of a whaling ship’s crew and takes us into a world, a way of life and a trade that was so prevalent at one time and is now defunct or akin to piracy. Whether you agree with it or not, it is a fascinating look into whaling.
As for the ethical implications of hunting whales, Melville does address this at one point, but his logic is highly flawed. He claims that the practice of whaling won’t impact the populations of the leviathans because he has seen large herds of them and an average whaling voyage only ends up with a few killed animals. I must warn though that there is a chapter describing the butchering of one of these magnificent beasts that caused me to grimace and shudder a few times.
Even though I found his tangents to be dry and boring, they did contain some interesting information. For instance, he lays out the many uses of whale products and how they shaped and fueled society. Did you know that umbrella spokes and hoop skirts were made from whale bone? He also attempts in one of his essays to classify whales scientifically and chooses to define them as fish with a blow hole and horizontal tail.
For this book, I listened to BJ Harrison’s performance. He was great, so much so that while choosing a copy of Swiss Family Robinson, which I’ve just started, I chose his.
I’d recommend Moby Dick. Unless you absolutely want to learn everything about whaling there is, read the abridged version since it is Melville’s story telling capability and descriptive writing not his sideline textbook lectures that I truly enjoyed.