Upon recently finishing the great American novel Moby Dick, or The Whale by Herman Melville, I found my mind to be utterly blank and devoid of thought as to what I could possibly write concerning such an odd and somewhat obscure novel. My brain was a white blank page if you will. I believe it a wise saying that one should not bite off more than he can chew; and, having average size mouth and Moby Dick being the equivalent to say an Ultimate Destroyer sandwich at Papa Bob’s restaurant in Kansas City (google that and go there), I find it worthwhile to narrow this post of mine to write about that which struck me as the most distinguishing part of the novel. (Here a suggestion for discussing and reading novels: it is too easy to try and capture the meaning of everything through the first read. This is of course impossible and also does the book a disservice. One should read it for pleasure and comment on what happens to strike his or her fancy afterwards. That which I am doing right now.)
Seeing as how many reading this may have not a clue about the Whale being discussed and have yet to read about it, I think it is best to give a warning to anyone who desires to read it in the future. The warning is this: Melville (or should we say Ishmael the narrator) loves tangents. In fact, not being a math whiz, I would say 45 to 55 percent of the novel is a tangent. And the real tangent begins when he sets sail on The Pequod.
This is highly frustrating to any reader who does not know what is coming. Especially in our day and age when fast paced novels are all the rage, a novel in which—almost literally—nothing happens until the last three chapters can be one that is given up and thrust against the wall two-thirds of the way through.
Now anyone who has read it would argue that there is much going on in the tangents eloquently written by Ishmael, but for the sake of their overall purpose I would like to comment on why they are there to begin with. In our current culture, doing is perhaps the great virtue. We have to constantly be doing something. Though there is much to do on a boat, is much of it worth writing about? Instead we are given snippets of what Ishmael was thinking about during his voyage and some other interesting details as well. I myself have been on a boat just once in my life, and I find this to be somewhat true. An average day on a cruise ship is perhaps more exciting (or should we say entertaining) than one on a whale boat but still not worth writing about in a book. Furthermore, Ishmael explains that he needed to write a large book since such a large creature was its subject.
To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.
And so, though the tangents make one feel as if nothing is really happening in the book, so may it be that way. For in our own lives nothing much ever seems to be happening if we think about it. The routine of life comes and goes, but nothing dramatic or out of the ordinary happens but on a rare occasion. And thus, the book displays this truth. I found myself the day I ended the novel engaging in the very ho-hum behavior that was the book. Though unintended I apparently attempted a day like Will Ferrell’s character Harold crick in the movie Stranger Than Fiction who attempts to do nothing all day. And nothing I did, but read, write and stroll on over the library for some fresh air and a book.
And so it seems that we could write about our relatively uneventful lives in an exciting and dramatic prose (which I prefer), make up an exciting plot, or take the course of Ishmael and chase a red-herring all the while knowing in the end we’re after a whale.