Vanity Fair: Moby Dick, Relevancy, Etc.

Interesting article from Vanity Fair — The Road to Melville” — which offers a nice discussion on reasons why readers still read Moby Dick, as well as thoughts on American history, democracy, despotism, and extinction.

So: why read Moby Dick? I’m always somewhat suspicious about the really big, sweeping claims (example:”Moby-Dick is more than the greatest American novel ever written; it is a metaphysical survival manual — the best guidebook there is for a literate man or woman facing an impenetrable unknown: the future of civilization in this storm-tossed 21st century”), but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate a strongly stated claim. The argument is a familiar one to the literati, but the truism is obviously still true: good literature ages with the rest of us. In the novel we find a book,

“about much more than a whaling voyage to the Pacific. Indeed, contained in the pages of Moby-Dick is nothing less than the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts, and ideals that had contributed to the outbreak of a revolution in 1775 and were about to precipitate a civil war in 1861, and that have continued to drive this country’s ever contentious march across 160 years … This means that whenever a new crisis grips this country, Moby-Dick becomes newly important.”

Historical perspective is always useful when we consider those classics (or, at the very least, those books that people feel social pressure about having pretended to have read) and the VF article passes along some useful trivia (number of copies of the novel sold during Melville’s lifetime: only3,715 copies). I’m always rather curious about that strange admixture of chance and cultural timing that leads a classic to become a classic —

“What Moby-Dick had needed, it turned out, was space — the distance required for its themes and images to resonate, unfettered by the passions that had inspired them. Once free of its own time, the novel was on its way to becoming the seemingly timeless source of meaning that it is today.”

Most people have a funny love/hate relationship with Moby Dick; complicated emotions which seem to be both perfectly obvious and worth further contemplating about what it means about our ever-changing relationship the books we read —

“Even so, in our day, Moby-Dick is the most reluctantly read of the American classics. Not only is the book long; many of its 135 chapters appear to have nothing to do with the tale of Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the White Whale. But the novel, like all great works of art, grows on you. Instead of being a page-turner, Moby-Dick is a repository of American history and culture and the essentials of Western literature. The book is so encyclopedic that space aliens could use it to re-create the whale fishery as it once existed on the planet Earth in the midst of the 19th century. In fact, we have become those space aliens, the inhabitants of a planet so altered by our profligate presence that we are living on a different Earth from the one Melville knew. And yet the more our world changes, the more relevant the novel seems to be.”

Give the article a quick read. It’s worth it — even if you’ve never read, or are ever planning to read Moby Dick.

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Maybe I only liked the article since it happened to use one of my personal favorite passages: “There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.”


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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