Sea Reads: Meditations on Melville

whale rainbow - 1.jpgI’d always managed not to ready Moby Dick. It was never assigned in high school. I didn’t enroll in a literature class in college. And as I took on the mantle of a sailor, it just seemed another work of fiction.  While in search of another title on a nearby shelf at the library, there it was: a 600-page behemoth. I suddenly felt obliged to at least say that I tried to read it.

I skipped the professorial introduction and resisted looking up any background information about Melville. I decided that if I was going to invest in a reading an epic novel, I wanted to experience the book as-is, with the ability to form my own opinions. Still, I was leery of reading something so big and old.

Some thirty pages in, my first feeling was one of surprise: it was interesting and engrossing. The characters, while clearly a product of their time, were easy to like and understand. The narrative was uncomplicated. I realized that was a mistake to have put it off for so long.

I only read Moby Dick on my commute to and from work, but the chapters were the perfect length to absorb in one brief sitting. It took me several months to get through it, which allowed the tale to grow in my mind. Instead of slogging through it, like some classroom assignment, I reveled in the rich language. I never fatigued.

With each week, I found some new angle on the book. The characters were a little deeper than I initially perceived them and pieces that seemed important early in the book, receded like an island in a mist. Although anything to do with biology or whaling lore (half the book) could have been tossed out, the remaining narrative chapters drew me in, especially the soliloquies. Their powerful, descriptive words are every bit as impressive and beautiful as any Shakespeare sonnet I’ve ever heard, but better because it is all about the sea.

For example, this soliloquy (which I have sadly truncated) by Captain Ahab is so rich with language and imagery. The crew has killed a whale whose head has yet to be processed. Ahab, alone, ponders: “Speak, thou vast and venerable head, muttered Ahab… and tell us the secret thing that is in thee. Of all divers, thou hast dived the deepest. That head upon which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid this world’s foundations. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned…”

ship - 1.jpg

Because I hadn’t read the introduction, I had the joy of realizing that Melville had spent a lot of time on the water simply from his choice of language. His description of the sea went beyond the boat. I’ve read dozens of sailing books and a few surfing books, but the language and detail about the sea is weak at best.

Like the people who live in the far north and have scores of words for snow, Melville has the lingo for the water. In a hunt scene near the end of the book he writes, “the ocean grew still more smooth; seemed drawing a carpet over its waves; seemed a noon meadow, so serenely it spread… and continually set in a revolving ring of finest, fleecy, greenish foam… the blue waters interchangeably flowed over into the moving valley of his stead wake…”

The other thing I felt was done masterfully were the interludes between chapters. They aren’t entirely necessary for the actual narrative, but they add such richness to the story itself. In one called the lamp, Melville writes,  “In merchantmen, oil for the sailor is more scarce than the milk of queens. To dress in the dark, and eat in the dark, and stumble in darkness to his pallet, this is his usual lot. But the whaleman, as he seeks the food of light, so he lives in light.”

If you love the sea and haven’t read Moby Dick, it’s not too late to start.

(Editor’s note: If you must read it digitally, it’s free here.)


  1. I checked out the audio version from the Port Townsend library. The person (William Hootkins?) they have reading it really brings it to life! That was a wonderful experience!
    All the best, Scott

  2. Moby Dick is a novel that I need to read every 10 years. Each stage of my life has given me a new window into this epic tale. The business and technical aspect of whaling, which you and I both found like a waste of paper at first reading, was the most interesting aspect the last time I enjoyed the book. Thank you for reminding me that it’s been another ten years since I read his amazing novel.

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