SO FAR, IT HAS TAKEN me two years to read Herman Melville’s classic of monomania and cetology, mostly because I don’t want to finish. And so I haven’t, yet.
It’s the language. Melville rolls so many word-clad notions around his tongue, and flips them into and between your ears with such easy fluidity, that it doesn’t matter whether or not he’s digressing (which he does, for most of the book). We fancy moderns with our choice of storytellers and interpretations know how the story goes, or at least how it ends, before we read it. That’s an advantage of sorts over the initial 1851 audience, an advantage which lets us concentrate instead on the journey — since, despite its encyclopedic treatment of whales, the men who hunt them, and the global economy resulting therefrom, we might miss the fact that Moby-Dick isn’t really about whaling at all, at all.
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.