How to Read “Moby-Dick,” The Perfect Book for Troubled Times
Two chapters a night, at your desk, with a glass of Scotch
Eighteen years ago, while walking through my oceanside college town of Isla Vista, I told my friend Michael Russell that I wanted to take a course on the works of Herman Melville. As the salty smell of nearby seawater wafted through the air, I admitted that I’d never read Moby-Dick.
For a literature major, this seemed tantamount to treason. I thought a university classroom — under the guidance of (what I imagined would be) a gray-bearded, pipe-smoking, cardigan-clad professor — would be the appropriate venue to finally tackle Melville’s 200,000-word whaling epic. Michael, who is now the restaurant reporter and critic for The Oregonian in Portland, told me, “Don’t take that class. There’s only one way to read Moby-Dick: Two chapters a night, at your desk, with a glass of Scotch.”
I heeded Michael’s advice and didn’t enroll in the course. But I never read the book in the way he recommended. Instead I consumed it in a way that’s similar to how I’ve watched the movie Titanic: never in one go, spread out over the course of a decade, in dribs and drabs on TBS.
A couple years ago, I bought a handsome paperback edition of Melville’s doorstop of a novel (a University of California Press reprint of a 1979 edition — the typeset is Goudy Modern, for all you font fanatics out there). Since then, its fat spine has glared at me from my bookshelf, daring me to read it in the piecemeal way Michael suggested. So on March 1st, I threw caution to the wind and decided that there was no time like the present. I took the heavy book off the shelf like a bodybuilder lifting a barbell off a rack, poured myself a tumbler of Scotch and dug in.
Within a few days of the launch of my Melville expedition, the spread of COVID-19 accelerated in the United States, turning the world as we know it inside out. Overwhelmed by the grimness of the news each day, sleep became difficult and anxiety, like an ominous gray fog, crept in. My Moby-Dick readings dwindled from two chapters a night to one, but I kept it up. While reading the news during the day can be a dread-inducing experience, my bedtime visits with Ishmael and the Pequod gave me something to look forward to. Poring over Moby-Dick is like having Andy from the Headspace app tell you a very slow story about a whaling expedition instead of a guided meditation. In a world rife with death, disease and political incompetence, spending a few minutes reading Melville before bed began to calm my nerves.
I wanted to talk to the most knowledgeable person possible about why (and how) Moby-Dick has effectively quelled my anxiety at the end of the day, and why it’s a book that’s endured for so long (it was first published in October 1851). So I turned to one of my favorite writers, Nathaniel Philbrick, author of the National Book Award-winning In the Heart of the Sea (which was later made into a 2015 movie directed by Ron Howard) and Why Read Moby-Dick, a slim 2011 volume that praises the virtues of reading Ishmael’s tale.
Philbrick, now 63, also wrote the introduction to the 150th anniversary Penguin Classics edition of the novel, in which he accurately describes Moby-Dick as “more than a little intimidating, as if Shakespeare and the translators of the King James Bible teamed up to write a very weird book about whaling.”
I reached out to the publicist at Philbrick’s publishing house, who told me that he was busy at work on a new project and not doing press. When I told her what I wanted to interview him about — reading Moby-Dick in a time of crisis — she wrote back and said that she checked with him, and of course he’d talk about that. I called Philbrick at his home on Nantucket. “We’ve been out here 34 years,” he said of the island, the same one where Ishmael begins his journey. “It’s just my wife and I here, and our dog. It’s weird because a lot of people fled the cities and came here last weekend. We don’t have extensive medical facilities, so I don’t know how smart that is.”
After briefly discussing current events, our conversation shifted to Moby-Dick. I asked him if he found it unusual that I thought of such a violent, strange book as a soothing read. “No, not at all,” he said. “That’s one of the miracles of the book. Just think of the topic: It’s a hell ship! They’re bound for the end of the world! And they’ve got a demonic captain who just wants to fulfill his existential quest to kill this white whale. What could be more terrifying? And yet because of the narrator, Ishmael, who is I think one of the more miraculous literary creations ever — he’s a spirit of wit and imagination — there’s an open-ended generosity about Moby-Dick that is soothing. For me, it’s an existential survival guide. It’s what to read when the worst is possibly happening, because the world is always on the edge of the catastrophe.”
I told Philbrick that the image of a demonic captain leading a hell ship to the end of the world seemed a little too on the nose for our current situation.
“Moby-Dick was written when America was about to fall apart,” he responded. “It would take 10 years. That permeates the book, that sense of being on the edge of an abyss, of hanging in there. But that’s not necessarily what you’re feeling as you read it. You’re feeling the wonder of life … but also the darkness.”
Moby-Dick has been around for 169 years, although it didn’t find a wide audience in the United States until the 1920s. I asked Philbrick what makes it such an enduring novel, one that’s been read and studied through catastrophes like World Wars, the Great Depression, Vietnam, September 11th and now the coronavirus. “It’s the level of the prose, which is really poetry, I think,” Philbrick said. “The sentences elevate it beyond any specific time. You read it and you don’t think of antebellum America on the edge of the Civil War. It’s transcendent, and yet it’s full of very specific realities of life.”
I’m currently at Chapter 32 — “Cetology” — the chapter that explicitly and exclusively riffs on whale biology. It’s a make-or-break point for a lot of readers. When faced with 5,207 words about marine anatomy, many decide it’s time to part company with the narrative, heaving it across the room in frustration. I’ve resolved to soldier on, of course, with my desk and my Scotch. I was curious if Philbrick had a way that he prefers to read the book.
“I’ve read it about a dozen times,” he said. “But I’m always returning to it. For me, it’s like the Bible. You just open it up. I actually have it on my phone. Back when I was traveling on airplanes, if your flight gets delayed and you’re stressed, just open it up and randomly start reading a chapter. It has that quality of the rosary, or something like that.”
Philbrick continued, “I don’t think there’s any best way to read it. I mean, I don’t think you should binge-read it. You just can’t. It’s too dense. When I was reading it prior to writing Why Read Moby-Dick, I was getting as close as you can to reading it like when you’re assigned it in school, which is horrible. You know, when you’ve got a week to read Moby-Dick. Come on, that’s ridiculous. There’s no human being on this earth who can do that and give the book what it deserves. So I think exactly what you’re doing is great.”
At this point in our conversation, Philbrick had to pause for a moment to talk to a neighbor at his front door. When he returned to the call, he returned to my question about why Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale is a calming story.
“Moby-Dick is soothing and it’s because it’s a book written by a survivor, the sole survivor,” Philbrick said. “Ishmael makes it through and it’s very significant that he does. It’s life-affirming. Even in the midst of all of this happening, the world literally being completely changed as we once knew it. Where it will go, who knows? But humanity has been through this kind of thing before, and Ishmael is. When you think back to Melville, his reputation wouldn’t really survive after Moby-Dick, but he would keep on writing for the rest of his life and die with Billy Budd on his desk, the greatest novella ever written. There’s something to just continuing on. And I think there’s no better companion through it all than Moby-Dick.”
I wished Philbrick well and thanked him for talking with me. He was kind and generous, not unlike Ishmael. Our conversation reminded me of having office hours with a favorite professor. It was one of those moments of human interaction that, in the era of social distancing, I find myself cherishing.
In my current reading of Moby-Dick, I have 103 chapters to go. If I read a chapter a day, I should reach the end sometime by the end of June or early July. I can’t envision what the world will look like by then. So much is uncertain, but as heartbreak, suffering and strife — as well as compassion, courage and joy — unfold around us, Ishmael, Ahab and the crew of the Pequod will continue on their journey, as I will on mine.