Herman Melville: you won’t get the better of me

Moby Dick. Moby sodding Dick. I started this leviathan of a book (see what I did there?) back in March, and shared some thoughts about it in a post a few weeks ago. I’d set myself the target of finishing it “by the summer”. So much for that. I’ve barely managed another 30 pages since then, and it’s June the day after tomorrow, which is summer by anybody’s reckoning. I’m getting nowhere fast.

I have to say Herman Melville isn’t making it easy for me. It’s very good in places, but he ignores just about every single rule and hint which modern-day publishers and critics give to aspiring writers. Sentences sprawl way over the modern recommended 25-28 word limit, sometimes meandering on for 40 or 50 words, with so many different subordinate clauses, not to mention the various offshoots as his mind goes off on yet another whale-related tangent, so that by the time you reach the end of the sentence you’ve actually forgotten how it began, so you have to go back and start again assuming you haven’t lost the will to live. Rather like that last sentence there. Only much worse.

Then there’s the apparent lack of structure. Maybe I’ll see the structure better once I’ve read further, but at the moment it seems like Melville simply forgets that he needs to drive the narrative forward to keep his readers interested. The plot is frequently put on hold for an entire chapter – or chapters – while he describes new characters in painstaking detail (describes them one immediately after the other, mind you, without actually giving them anything to do, meaning you instantly forget which one was which). It’s not just new characters who prompt these digressions. I’ve diligently ploughed through a church sermon, somebody’s dream and several lectures about whaling whilst waiting for the story to get going again.

And yet, in some strange way, I absolutely love it.  As a British reader, I’m relishing the strangeness of an American novel, the different culture and mindset which it comes from. His descriptions of the whaling inns and the sailors who frequent them are full of rich, vivid detail. I’m intrigued by the fact that Ishmael, the narrator, is (so far) such a thinly sketched character. His lack of substance somehow makes it easier to put myself in his shoes, to stand back, observing the scene and make my own judgements about it, without being swayed by his personality. I’ve never read anything quite like Moby Dick before and I’m intrigued to find out how it’s going to turn out.

So it’s time to take a leaf out of Captain Ahab’s book (incidentally, thirty-odd chapters into the book, he’s only just made his first appearance) and summon up a bit of steely, grizzled resolve in pursuit of my objective. I’ve read 158 pages out of a total of 625, leaving me with 467 still to read. If I were to read 20 pages a day, I could get it finished in 24 days – before the end of June. I’ve always been a fast reader, so twenty pages should take me around half an hour. Can I spare half an hour a day for reading? I easily waste that much time in a day scrolling through Facebook and Twitter on my phone – I just need to get into the habit of picking up a book instead.  So, WordPress, here’s my pledge: I WILL have Moby Dick finished by the end of June. Like I said last time, wish me luck.





11 thoughts on “Herman Melville: you won’t get the better of me

  1. I read Moby Dick a few years ago as part of a New Year’s Resolution to read “big”(pagewise) books.
    Let me say this: there is no plot; his tangents go no where; there is one chapter that reads like a whale textbook & I used the F word at the end (as in WTF was that book about?)
    But like childbirth I have forgotten the pain & now, in retrospect, I think the book was brilliant & groundbreaking

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha! I’m starting to feel the same. The whale textbook sections are particularly annoying. But some of it reads like poetry. There’s no other book quite like it, that’s for sure!


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