Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Been a tough go

It's been awhile. Again. That's because I got sick of it again.

Most people stop reading. I was once sort of like that. You had to read the whole thing even if you were hating it. Maybe it got better. Even after three hundred pages, maybe it gets better. But if you give a book three hundred pages...

One wise friend of mine once said that there were too many good books out there to waste your time with one you can't stand.

I was reading at a good pace for awhile there. There was a really good chapter about the whale hunt, an actual action chapter that furthered the story.

Then there was Chapter 60 "The Line." I kid you not, it is a four page treatise on the type of rope that is used. You get so fed up! Are you reading an encyclopedia or a novel? Is this Dickipedia? (Get it--like Wikipedia?)

I know that there are necessary hints and foreshadows dropped in these little summations of information. Like in Chapter 63 "The Crotch" about a piece of the whaleboat. It does become necessary because it talks about the tangle of the ropes and such. That will become important when we learn about Ahab's final fate. Even Melville admits, "All these particulars are faithfully narrated here, as they will not fail to elucidate several most important, however, intricate passages, in scenes hereafter to be painted."

But couldn't the good writer or novelist somehow bring this into the narrative? I do not think it should be a separate chapter. It should be brought in and tied together.

So that's where I am stuck right now. I will begin Chapter 64 the next time I open it.

I will get this done. While the summer has come and gone, I persist. This book is my Moby Dick, my white whale. When I finish this, I will bury that part of my past and move on. I may realize how a book should not be, and that may be better than understanding a good book. I will also have to uncover some of that research on how this became a resurrected American classic in the 1920s.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Interesting tidbit from a literary perspective--

In Chapter 51 "The Spirit-Spout" there is an interesting footnote on "the tell-tale that swung from a beam in the ceiling."

The cabin-compass is called the tell-tale, because without going to the compass at the helm, the Captain, while below, can inform himself of the course of the ship.

What intrigues me is that I now understand more behind the name of Edgar Allen Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart." I never looked it up before, never thought to. I thought it was a fancy compound adjective that Poe was using, like the tale that the heart would tell, also like a tattle-tale.

In fact, my Webster's dictionary gives "TALEBEARER, INFORMER" as the first definition of telltale, without the hyphen that comes inbetween the words in the short story.

However, this makes even more sense than just being a plain "informer." If the tell-tale is to show the true direction without even leaving the cabin, in a sense an inner compass, Poe's character shows the true direction of a person's conscience. (Even though he killed the guy anyway in the story--too bad his tell-tale didn't kick in until after he killed the guy.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


I'm roughly halfway. I am doing it! I'm on Chapter 53 and my book is looking a little worse for wear! It is split apart and must be kept together with a rubber band:

Oddly though, then comes Chapter 45 "The Affidavit" where Melville admits his lack of narrative!

So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book; and, indeed, as
indirectly touching one or two very interesting and curious particulars in the
habits of sperm whales, the foregoing chapter, in its earlier part, is as
important a one as will be found in this volume; but the leading matter of it
requires to be still further and more familiarly enlarged upon, in order to be
adequately understood, and moreover to take away any incredulity which a
profound ignorance of the entire subject may induce in some minds, as to the
natural verity of the main points of this affair.

Excuse me? So all of this stuff, like that blasted chapter on Cetology, was "to take away any incredulity."

Through Sparknotes.com and other resources, I have discovered that whaling as an industry was mostly dying as Melville wrote the book. Is this two books? One part novel and one part an encyclopedia of sorts for a dying industry? It is possible then, based on this Chapter 45, that Melville saw a possibility of modern man not understanding this foreign industry, like we wouldn't be able to understand a profession centuries later. Possible. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


The internet is wonderful for one thing above all: finding others out there in the void whom you would never meet otherwise that are going through the same things as you.

The coolest person emailed me because she found my MYMOBYDICK blog and said, " (I, too, pretended to read it in high school)." Meg Guroff gathered all of these annotations for herself and decided to share them with the world to make it easier to read this massive tome. The website is then called POWERMOBYDICK.

The annotations, if you can see them in this picture, if not, go to the website, easily add to the readability of the book. They are not footnotes or endnotes so you don't have to turn pages to take you away from the reading. This is exactly like your high school English textbook with the side margins. Remember those?

All of the references are quickly delineated. Strange words are defined and this book has a ton of strange words.

It truly does make it more readable. I must find out how to do my own over some of the texts I teach in high school.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Problem with the Narrative in Moby Dick

It has been slow going after that finally good chapter on Ahab's obsession. I quoted from that chapter extensively a few posts ago. I was, for a moment, actually into the book.

But then Melville takes yet another turn away from the events of the book!

It has been slow going getting past them. I am several chapters behind because I just haven't wanted to pick up the damn book.

After that great Ahab chapter there have been several that don't advance the narrative at all.

In fact, they read like literary criticism. They are Melville himself expounding upon the symbolism behind the whiteness of the whale. Interesting to a literature major like me, sort of.

It's hard, I tell ya. Sparknotes.com even says:

These chapters contain very little action, focusing instead on the meaning of
the events already described. In the first place, Ishmael takes considerable
pains to ensure that the reader will not interpret his story as a tall tale
fabricated to impress the gullible. He demonstrates in great detail that a
specific whale can be recognized, become the subject of rumor and legend, and
even be hunted. His request that his narrative be taken literally and not as
some “hideous and intolerable allegory” emphasizes that Ahab’s desire to kill
Moby Dick exists not on some symbolic level but rather in the realm of corporeal

If that is actually the reason, do you lose the reader? Or do you gain classic status? Remember, Moby Dick was not a bestseller back in the 1850s. Sparknotes.com says,

By the 1850s, whaling was a dying industry. Whales had been hunted into near
extinction, and substitutes for whale oil had been found. Despite its range of
cultural references and affiliation with popular genres, Moby-Dick was a
failure. Its reception led Melville to defy his critics by writing in an
increasingly experimental style and eventually forsaking novels in favor of
poetry. He died in 1891.

Moby-Dick remained largely ignored until the 1920s,
when it was rediscovered and promoted by literary historians interested in
constructing an American literary tradition. To these critics, Moby-Dick was
both a seminal work elaborating on classic American themes, such as religion,
fate, and economic expansion, and a radically experimental anachronism that
anticipated Modernism in its outsized scope and pastiche of forms. 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.

So is this entire exercise in reading something purely for the sake of reading something tough? Was Melville writing in a grand American literary tradition? If so, explain to me why these novels are not prevalent on best seller lists. This is a book that then defines the difference between English literature professionals and the layman reader. Certainly there are more articles to write about Moby Dick than a current bestseller by John Grisham, but which do you really want to read? I think that even English professionals will admit to reading Grisham to read something good.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Jane Yolen's Moby Dick

This is the note in which I saw of the Newsweek reference to Jane Yolen and Moby Dick, taken from the Ansible 252 newsletter, July 2008:

JANE YOLEN almost avoids gloating: 'I had a piece in _Newsweek_ this pastweek
about my favorite books, and have heard so far from seven elementaryschool
friends, half a dozen high school buddies, college mates, far-flung cousins, and
one very strange man who insisted that reading _MobyDick_ had ruined his life
forever so I should be careful not to recco itto anyone again. / Also just sold
my 305th book.' (2 June)

Jane Yolen loves Moby Dick enough to revisit it every ten years, so it says in the Newsweek article.

I then emailed Jane Yolen, having to ask "Why in heaven's name?" Here's that transaction:

Ms. Yolen,
I am a high school English teacher. I came across that Newsweek snippet of
your five most important books, and another quote by a guy saying that Moby Dick
ruined his life. I have never managed to make it through Moby Dick but I am
trying now, this summer break. However, I simply must ask: what is in Moby Dick
that you think it is the #1 most important book of all time? I cannot fathom it.
I am 200 pages into it and even with my Masters Degree in English cannot
understand the fascination behind it. Although, it is my Moby Dick and I
will read it this summer.
Thank you for the wonderful writing I have been able to share with my
students throughout the years.
Matt Butcher

Her response:

Moby Dick: It has passionate adventure, strong characters, an amazing
setting well delineated, heroes and anti-heroes, and a brutal testing of its
cast. Plus there's all that whaling stuff which I find utterly fascinating. And
a mystery at the heart of the book--who is Ishmael and why is he alone


Jane Yolen

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Chapter 36 "The Quarter-Deck"


Finally the meat of the matter gets set on the table. This is the equivalent of going to dinner at the house of someone you really don't like and having to sit through their vacation slides before dinner.

Ahab finally makes his mission known. We learn that he is after the White Whale for taking his leg. He means to get him, damn the consequences. This is where I really need to pay attention to the message behind the story.

"Aye, aye! and I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the
Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up. And this is
what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land,
and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out. What
say ye, men, will ye splice hands on it, now? I think ye do look brave."

This is the great passage paraphrased by Khan in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, one of my favorite movies. The book Moby Dick is clearly seen in the ship Botany Bay on Ceti Alpha V. Clearly, this is the substance of Ahab's one-tracked madness. He will not only chase the whale unto the eternal damnation of hell itself but take his whole crew with him, asking them to "splice hands" with him. This is the crux of the matter that will be called upon again in the analysis of this book. Its applications to the worldly realm is significant. A singular obsession of any person can be deemed their own "White Whale."

"but I came here to hunt whales, not my commander's vengeance."

Starbuck is the only one on board who mutters any kind of disapproval, acting as sort of the conscience of the crew. Could you imagine signing on for a voyage to get as many whales as you can, the more you get, the greater your share of wealth, and then the crazy captain wants to hunt a single whale out in the middle of the Pacific?

"my vengeance will fetch a great premium here!"

Ahab noticeably strikes his "chest," and the crew says it sounds "hollow." Has Ahab no soul? Did the whale take more than his leg? Will he not recover his soul unless this happens?

"Vengeance on a dumb brute!" cried Starbuck, "that simply smote thee from
blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems

Starbuck again states how he disapproves. This time though it specifically states being "blasphemous" with all the religious connotations that brings.

He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength,
with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I
hate...I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd
strike the sun if it insulted me.

I really do love this line, also paraphrased in Star Trek II. This is another focus point, placing the White Whale on a pedestal. Ahab, as humanity, cannot be seen as being lesser strength than anything. Ahab sees the White Whale as desiring even more ill in the world, the "malice," however, Ahab cannot understand it; it's "inscrutable." Could this be anything in life--or is it religious too?

Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby
Dick to his death!

Like a congregation of worshippers, the men drink to this phrase, like Communion, and shouted out together.

The hardest part to reading this chapter, as I came in after reading it out on our porch, is that I had to wait 189 pages for it. In a modern novel, this scene would come first and then all the other stuff would flashback to how Ishmael got into this predicament. And they would have also cut out all that Cetology whale science crap.

Monday, June 30, 2008

The #1 Most Important Book?

I'm a couple of chapters behind. That damn chapter on the whale science, "Cetology," is one of the worst god-awful things ever written. How this plays into the narrative is a mystery. The only discernible reason is that Melville is including absolutely everything on whales that gets into his head. He even admits that half the stuff he is completely making up, saying that he doesn't know or that he comes up with names for this stuff. He instills in himself some kind of authority.

Another post coming up soon about the only chapter really worth mentioning so far, the one where we finaly see Ahab and his lust for vengeance.

Today, I came across a weird reference to Moby Dick . It appears in Newsweek that author Jane Yolen likes this book.

Books: Jane Yolen
Updated: 11:23 AM ET May 24,
The author of more than 280 books, Yolen, a writer of folklore fantasy
and children's literature, is best known for her Holocaust novella "The Devil's
Arithmetic." Her latest work, "Naming Liberty," tells the story of a Russian
girl and the designer of the Statue of Liberty.
My Five Most Important Books
1. "Moby-Dick" by Herman Melville. It's a book I reread every 10 years,
which is coming up again. I even love the whale parts.

To be honest, that isn't much of a reason to me.

This book keeps surfacing in the oddest places. A prominent author has this listed as her most important book of all time? I must dive into this mystery.

[On another note, I find it funny that Newsweek is using quotation marks for book titles. WTF?]

Saturday, June 14, 2008


"Butchers we are, that is true. But butchers, also, and butchers of the
bloodiest badge have been all Martial Commanders whom the world invariably
delights to honor."
--Moby Dick

Just 'cause it's cool with my last name being Butcher and all.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

I'm doing it

I haven't been posting, but I am right on track. According to my calendar, reading one chapter a day would put me at Chapter 22. I have finished Chapter 24. I've gotten lucky with some of these super-short chapters but that still works in my favor. I will move up my timetable.

The weird thing is that I am on page 140 and really nothing has happened. Ishmael and Queequeg have finally shipped off on the Pequod. We still have not seen Captain Ahab, although his shadow looms. This would be an awesome star-part, a la Orson Welles in The Third Man.

Melville was trying for the ultimate treatise on whaling. He even says so in one chapter when he argues "The whale no famous author, and whaling no famous chronicler?" from Chapter 24, "The Advocate." Melville obviously is taking that burden on his pen. This dichotomy is especially interesting to me right now from my background: up in Alaska, whaling is revered; down in the Lower 48, whaling is sneered upon. Barrow's high school team was the "Whalers" where they still do it today--I went to a museum up there and everything. Melville is explaining how important whaling was to 1800s America, and honestly, I don't think early America would have survived without it. Alaska, especially rural Alaska, still needs whaling. For culture and for food and supplies. They use every part of that beast.

So it interests me right now that this book should survive for the understanding of whaling alone.

The picture above is courtesy of The Inupiat Heritage Center, which I have been to, up in Barrow, Alaska. http://www.nps.gov/archive/inup/inupExhibitsAldrich.htm

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Up through chapter 14

I was a little behind so I just read a bunch of chapters together. I am going to have to make my vow of one chapter a day into 2-3 chapters a day. There's 135 chapters and I promised myself to finish before school starts again in the fall.

Chapter nine--The Sermon. All about the preacher telling the story about Jonah in the whale. Quite interesting actually, the definition of repentance he gives. Jonah understood and accepted that he was to be punished for his sins, and that is what let him gain salvation.

Chapter ten--A Bosom Friend. All about how Ishmael befriends Queequeg. I truly liked how Melville explains that you can still be a christian if you let others worship in their own way. That is being a true christian.

Chapter eleven--Nightgown. They get so close that they spend the night chatting in bed, compared to the secrets and deep thoughts of married couples.

Chapter twelve--Biographical. So Queequeg is a king's son, to be a king himself someday, but he chose to sail the world first. Interesting. Although I came up with one interesting dilemma: if Queequeg jumped a ship and stowed away at the last moment, capsizing his own canoe in the process, how did he come by those heads he was selling at the beginning of the book?

Chapter thirteen--Wheelbarrow. Ishmael and Queequeg set off to find a whaling ship together. They share a wheelbarrow. Queequeg rescues someone on the commute and earns respect and Ishmael is none happier to have befriended such a great man, cannibal or not.

Chapter fourteen--Nantucket. Just a quick glance at the wondrous importance of Nantucket in the world scheme of things.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Just a few chapters

Read chapter three a couple of days ago--all about Ishmael having to share the bed with Queequeg. It was there for a bit of humor and to introduce his friend, on whose coffin Ishmael floats to safety.

Chapter four was just about Queequeg waking up and getting ready for the day, his "toilet" as the book puts it. Woke up with his arm around Ishmael.

Chapter five, entitled "Breakfast," had the guys come downstairs.

Man, is this book slow.

I will get through it this summer. I vow.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Spouter Inn

Read Chapter Two.

All he did was find an inn!

Leads up to Queequeg though.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Here we go again

I read chapter one last night. Also read the introduction by William Gibson from 1959. I will try to get through that introductory quote section. Melville included a few pages of "whale" allusions to literature and the Bible, I guess to give his subject creedence.

I have to read the intro and quotes so when I finish I won't get laughed at as a technicality.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Summer vacation--One more chance?

Today is the last day of the school year.

I resolve to read Moby Dick cover to cover by the start of school in the fall.

One more chance. Even though my wife says I can't do it. Even though my fellow English teachers ask me why I am bothering, that it is a horrible book...

I will do this.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

I couldn't do it

I couldn't even do it.

Here it is January. I started listening to the audio CDs in the car, of which I have two 45-minute drives (to and from work) to get it done.

I couldn't do it.

It bored me to tears. It may have been due to a horrible reading. But I just could not bring myself to put the next CD in. I think I had just met Captain Ahab and I gave up.

I need to try reading it again. A chapter a day, right? I can do a chapter a day.

Right, that's what I've said before.

The really sad part is that I have heard several Moby Dick or white whale references in the past few months that have really gotten my goat. I know the story and the references but have never read it.

Here I go again.

Mrs. Conley, I really despise you.