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.