Friday, September 28, 2007

As the story advances...

Okay, I still don't think Melville knew what a narrative structure was.

I'm up to chapter 43 or so, still listening on audio provided by Librovox. The story is all over the place. There is an entire chapter dedicated to "cetology," the study of whales, where the narrator classifies and lists everything he knows about whales. That simply has to be the most boring chapter in the whole book, completely escaping the narrative. The only thing it might be able to provide is a kind of realness to the whaling background.

The problem is that I could never get this far just reading it myself.

And then it finally gets a bit interesting.

Captain Ahab finally comes out of the cabin. This has to be a great star part, much like Orson Welles in The Third Man.

more later...

Friday, September 14, 2007

Chapters 4-16

Chapters 4-12 went super quick today, as they are pretty short chapters. However, do they really advance the plot at all? Do they really advance any of the themes and images? One whole chapter is dedicated to Melville's ramblings about Nantucket. Is it necessary?

I just looked at my paperback copy and chapter 16, "The Ship," ends on page 109. Say what? 109 pages so far of Ishmael wandering around and being Queequeg the "savage"'s buddy? (I say "savage" because of the context of the novel, but Melville, while admitting that the populace saw Queequeg as a savage, deftly shows the contradiction that Queequeg may be more civilized than the people of Nantucket.) When will the novel move on? THIS is exactly why I have never gotten this far reading it to myself. It doesn't go anywhere. Not 109 pages worth, at any rate. There is some character and setting development but was that much necessary? Actually, there was a time yesterday, driving down Interstate 39/51 in the middle of one of these chapters, that I screamed, "Jesus Christ, get on with it, Melville!" His circumambulatory sentences are like walking on a treadmill--it'll give ya a workout, but you don't go any place!

Chapter 16--finally we hear the name of the famous ship, the Pequod, and the name of its famous captain, Captain Ahab. Finally! The meat of the matter. I don't know why the lesser captains, Bildad and Peleg argued so much yet, but I am sure it will come to a head later.

I am amazed so far. I don't understand how this novel has been applauded for so long. Unless it gets really good really fast, I won't ever find the answer to that question.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The first three chapters

I had the pleasure of listening to the first three chapters of Moby Dick on my commute this morning.

Maybe it was the adaptation I downloaded from Librivox, but I don't think so. I could sense that it was written out, like a drawn out essay. My first impression makes me realize how hard this must have been for a seventh grader to try to read this. How the hell did I know about Narcissus and some of the other obscure references back in junior high? Now it seems a bit more rich and full of allusion. However, I don't think this reads well for casual consumption.

The first two chapters just seem a long way of telling us that Ishmael wants to go to sea as a sailor. Yes, there are reasons but are they truly necessary? Would a modern author even include these reasons in more than half a paragraph? Was this a product of its time.

The third chapter, the scene where Ishmael meets the harpooner that must share his rented bed, the strange Queequeg, is actually quite humorous. You have to put yourself into the 1850s mentality of the "strangeness" of a person from the South Seas being in New England.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

It's Been A While...

This monster is escaping me longer than it originally did Captain Ahab! I can't even dedicate one chapter a week!

Since I have been driving farther to work lately, I have gotten into audio books. Maybe I will listen to it instead, unabridged. Is it the same thing?

700 MB download of the entire audio book by these gracious hosts:

Hopefully, status will be updated on this new progress.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Chapter One: Loomings

"Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither?"

Ugh. No wonder I hated this in seventh grade.

The stilted language is almost barring, a great deterrent, even to an English major like me, to start off with. These first few pages do nothing but express that he wants to go on a sea voyage. References to Cato and Narcissus and others make this an exercise like a Jeopardy! contest. Do I know all of these strange references. Thankfully, yes. I couldn't imagine not knowing them and trying to read this, even with a good dictionary by your side.

"No, when I go to sea, I go as a simple sailor..." He then must explain that he wants to go as a sailor and get paid for the voyage, really digging into the actual sea-faring life and not as a silly passenger. He wants to get his hands beautifully dirty. I do like that ethic and that aspect of this narrative. Struggle makes us more human.

We know that Ishmael is writing this of a past experience. He tends to think highly of himself, as some grand narrator. He sees metaphor in everything, especially in the ocean. No matter how right he is, it still is a little off-putting having all this meaning placed upon our everyday lives and the objects around us. What has given him this great insight? Obviously, the answer is the plot of the book he is writing.

The book starts with the famous line "Call me Ishmael." He is an enigma.

Well, first chapter done. I am proud of myself to at least start.

Before Chapter One

Look at that: it's been a week and I still haven't read any of Moby Dick.

"It stands alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy as a novel that appears bizarre to the point of being unreadable but proves to be infinitely open to interpretation and discovery" ( It's funny because I always think that no one ever actually read Ulysses although 20th century book lists always place it at the top. That's another one that I gave up on during my first year at Western Illinois University for a really boring modern mythology class. (Although I did read the pretty neat Grendel by Gardner for that class.) If that quote starts off the Sparknotes on Moby Dick, it doesn't bode too well.

Several years ago, I did read a book that was a historical account of what Moby Dick is supposedly based on. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick was a very enjoyable read (image courtesy of, where the book as of February 4, 2007, could be purchased for 60 cents used). The whaleship Essex went down from an actual whale attack off the western coast of South America about 10,000 miles from any land. The whale actually rammed the ship. Several men were stranded at places called Henderson Island and Pitcairn Island. Many men resorted to cannibalism in their life rafts due to the long voyage.

It was an amazing book. I loved it and still remember its vivid descriptions of what these men went through. It was an ultimate adventure.
So I could see Captain Ahab wanting revenge after such a whale attack.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

My Moby Dick

Seventh grade. I wasn't a stellar performer at that time.

It was Mrs. Conley's seventh grade Challenge class at Hubert H. Humphrey Middle School. I had already been kicked out of the Challenge math and science classes because I couldn't hack it. Any two C's in a row and you got demoted to the regular classes. Luckily, my language arts and social studies ability was of at least B caliber.

It took me forever to read a book back then. It still does today, although I know how to power through them. Mrs. Conley had this list we had to choose from of the classics of literature in order to do solo book reports. I had chosen several short ones already, like The Time Machine, about 100 pages. Did you ever try to read a classic in seventh grade? It was hard, man. (And now I have a Masters degree in English so apparently I got better.)

She made me choose a longer one. I didn't want to. I told her it would be tough for me. She never cared. She's the one that called me incorrigible and moved on. I remember her yelling at me several times for asking questions, like the pronunciation of Djibouti. She hated me, and I hated her.

So I had to choose a longer book. Somehow I fell upon Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Graciously, she told me I didn't have to read the chapters on whaling because they didn't pertain to the exact plot of the book.

I never finished it. I tried, and I think I wound up about 40-50 pages into the massive tome. I didn't even go find the bloody Cliffs Notes.

When it came time to take her little test on the book, I got many wrong. Some of my answers were pruposefully ambiguous. When she asked, "What happened to Captain Ahab at the end?" I logically and rightfully wrote, "He died." She had to then verbally ask, "How did he die?" I didn't know and didn't care. In a tone that easily betrayed the fact that I never read it, I answered, "He drowned?" (Which he did, but we won't get into that right now.) She failed me on it.

She thought I was a slacker and set up appointments for me to see the counselor.

Moby Dick has been the bane of my existence. I still have never read it to this day. I have done reports on the damn thing and gotten away with it by reading Cliffs Notes and literary critcism. I know what it's about and the themes involved. I could just never read it.

As the holder of a M.A. degree now in English, I can't stand myself any more for not ever having read this work. I have tried several times and read maybe two chapters. Moby Dick is my personal Moby Dick, the albatross around my neck, to paraphrase Coleridge.

Well, I want to free that albatross.

I want to read Moby Dick. I want to get rid of this self-shame that I feel whenever I hear of it. I want to prove to myself that I can read it. That's what this blog is for.

This is my homework station. Every week, I must read one chapter, minimum of just one chapter and write about it here. I will also look up Sparknotes on that chapter and discuss it here.

No one may ever see this site. That's okay. This is for me. I honestly didn't think anyone would ever see my other blogs, The Butcher Shop at both and . However, growing up, I was never able to keep a journal or a diary. Never. I would start and then never get back to it. Nevertheless, I have been able to keep a blog for almost two years now. I think it has something to do with the feel of publishing that makes it right for me. I am writing for an audience, even though I don't know who exactly that audience is, and taking care of it before I hit "submit." It feels like an accomplishment, like a newspaper in a way. Even if no one reads it, they could read it, and that's the difference.

I took the text file of Moby Dick off of Gutenberg. The text file, plain text, is still 1.18 MB. There are 135 chapters, some of them very short.

I can do this. I will do this.

I'm off to read Chapter One and the Sparknotes on Moby Dick.