The summer I was sixteen, Moby-Dick was the ominous cloud over late July. Of the dozen or so book we’d been assigned as summer reading, this was the one that stood monument in the break, before which no others could be read, after which no others could intimidate, the one book upon which we knew our teacher’s first impressions would be built and therefore the one book we could not speed through half-assed.
Somewhere in the middle of the seventy-page chapter on the leviathans of the deep I gave in to it. I slowly found vivid the world Melville had constructed, found drama and suspense in the epic scope of a novel that constrained its action to the space of a ship. Looking back, it now consistently ranks among the best books I read in high school.
The Book consigned to the purgatory of preparatory summer reading, we were left to tackle it largely on our own. My classmates arrived on the first day of school each having taken away different notes of import from this “American Bible.” I was never really sure if I did, in fact, “get” Moby-Dick.
Fear not future AP-English students! (And you other lovers of literature.) Moby-Dick is having a moment (see the Meville fixation in Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding last year) and Nathaniel Philbrick has arrived with some timely signposts. His recent Why Read Moby-Dick? is a combination guide and exploration of what he argues is one of, if not the, most important American novel.
Philbrick naturally walks us through the plot a bit. But he knows better than to offer merely a Cliff’s Notes summary. He contextualizes: history of the shipwreck that inspired Melville, New England whaling ports, the literary inspiration the author found in Nathaniel Hawthorne. That alone would be enough to helpfully situate the book into an American lit curriculum. But go goes beyond into interpretation: finding in Ahab’s self-destructive drive a parallel to the United States on the brink of civil war. He makes it an oracle: contemporary fiction, locating in its digressions, self-refernces, and encyclopedic interests early predecessors of David Foster Wallace and other meta-fiction writers.
Moby-Dick is an imposing and frequently intimidating book. Philbrick sets out to make it a more manageable and, hopefully, enriching adventure. His essays are no substitute for the novel, but instead a collection of guides aimed at helping get as much as possible out of the quest.
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