It’s no secret that I’m a pretty big Moby-Dick fan. Or, if it was a secret to you, then this might be the first thing you’ve read by me. Which is cool, if that’s the case (thanks!).
Anyway, in honor of Moby-Dick‘s 166th birthday, here are nine reasons that you finally need to read it. Now.
Ishmael is an extraordinarily funny narrator.
You’ve probably heard a lot of reasons to read Moby-Dick in your life. Great American novel and foundation of all literature and a genuine masterpiece and so on. But something that seems to be often lost in its recommendations is that it’s a genuine laugh riot.
Oddly enough, I’ve noticed a trend in which readers of Moby-Dick find it funny, yet think that the humor is something they’re discovering for the first time, like this listicle of all the sperm references and this thread in the /r/mobydick subreddit.
The reality is that, yes, Ishmael is a very funny narrator and Moby-Dick is a very funny book. As pointed out in this NPR article, it’s a good idea to read it looking for humor and “see almost immediately that Melville’s tongue couldn’t have been more in his cheek.” And yes, you’re not imagining it: there really are tons of phallus jokes, with the entire 95th chapter dedicated to “a very strange, enigmatical object” which is none other than a whale’s penis.
Ishmael is a wise and thoughtful and oddly progressive narrator.
He’s not just funny, of course. He’s also wise and poignant, with enigmatic, zenlike musings including:
“It is not down in any map any map; true places never are.”
“Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.”
“Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian.”
It’s that third one that has sparked endless conversation, centered around the relationship between the “heathen” Queequeg and his bedmate Ishmael. Of course, the line above isn’t the only reference to the depths and threads of their relationship. Throughout the entire book, Ishmael and Queequeg form an intimate bond, to the extent that Moby-Dick has been considered the first depiction of same-sex marriage in American literature.
Of course, there are many stories and subplots in Moby-Dick, but the liberal Ishmael (and his partner Queequeg) is a constant reason to keep reading.
Captain Ahab is perpetually relevant.
The ostensible leader of the Pequod is obsessed with his purported enemy and his haunted past, in a wild manner that may remind you of certain public figures. If you aren’t certain, check out the Twitter account @MobyDickatSea, which constantly tweets relevant moments from the novel.
Consider this monologue:
…I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man. I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations! But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’se over me? Truth hath no confines….
Remind you of anyone yet?
The supporting cast is fascinating.
Not just Ishmael and Ahab, but an entire crew of madmen and wise men. Queequeg, described as “George Washington cannibalistically developed.” Starbuck, the namesake of the coffeeshop and perhaps the most rational man aboard the Pequod. Stubb and Elijah and Tashtego ather Mapple and countless other characters.
And for those of you who think that George R. R. Martin kills the most characters: it might be worth tallying the characters surviving at the end of Moby-Dick. It’s a pretty small list. Martin could learn a thing or two from Melville about killing darlings.
You can learn a lot about whales from it, even if some of it is apocryphal.
One of the most common complaints about Moby-Dick is all the boring chapters about the history of whaling.
But here’s the thing: those boring chapters are some of the funniest and most insane parts of the book. Not only are major parts of Ishmael’s history of whales imagined, but they are intentionally so, including a chapter or two about how whales are definitely fish and not mammals. There are some genuine laughs to be had in “Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales” and “Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes”.
Additionally, many of these chapters about the history of whales and whaling probe at far deeper philosophical themes. If you can move past the idea that these are encyclopedia entries, they become something deeper, funnier, and more exciting, akin to The Travels of Sir John Mandeville or Roberto Bolano’s Nazi Literature in the Americas.
About as accurate and as funny as an oft-vandalized Wikipedia page, Ishmael’s history of whaling is one of the novel’s highlights.
It will deepen your understanding of American literature, film, and pop culture.
Hemingway and Faulkner and Hawthorne all mentioned their admiration for the novel. Shakespeare’s plays and the various books of the Bible serve as major inspirations for the characters and events. And even through today, novels and films and televisions shows and albums are continually paying homage to Moby-Dick.
Not convinced that something you enjoy references it directly? Check out this list that I wrote a year ago, which includes Wes Anderson and Ron Swanson.
It contains a very early reference to demogorgons.
Who knew how much America would fall in love with battling demogorgons in 2016 and 2017? While we can thank Stranger Things for the Demogorgaissance, you can find an early reference to the mythical beasts in a Starbuck monologue from Moby-Dick‘s 38th chapter:
Oh, God! to sail with such a heathen crew that have small touch of human mothers in them! Whelped somewhere by the sharkish sea. The white whale is their demogorgon. Hark!…
It’s a great introduction to the Extended Melville Universe.
Okay, this one is a bit of a joke. There is no official Extended Melville Universe, but if you do enjoy Moby-Dick, there is plenty more awaiting you, including characters such as Bartleby, Billy Budd, and a boatful of conmen.
Also, of course, The Moonborn…
Finally, if you need one more reason to read Moby-Dick, I’ll remind you that it’s a great companion to my novel, The Moonborn: or, Moby-Dick on the Moon.