Saturday, January 7, 2012

Moby Dick Read-Along: Intro

This month we are excited to host a read-along of that notorious classic we all wish we could say we've read, Moby Dick. This Thursday, January 12th, we will be discussing chapters 1-26. But first, let's get aquainted with Moby Dick and its author. (Don't worry, no spoilers ahead!)

Herman Melville (via)
Herman Melville lived from 1819-1891. He was born the son of a New York City import merchant, who reportedly loved to tell his eight children adventures involving the sea, but who struggled to financially support his large family. Desperate to attain his own financial stability, after college Herman Melville signed an 18-month contract to work on Acushnet, a whaling vessel. While aboard, he sailed around Cape Horn and around the South Pacific. Melville wrote from his first two novels shortly after - Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), both based on his experiences in the South Pacific. Both novels met high critical acclaim.

However, when Melville published Moby Dick in 1851, his popularity had declined significantly and the novel was not successful at all. Some say that part of the reason readers in 1851 didn't like this book was the fact that the epilogue was not included in the first edition. The epilogue explains a very significant part of the plot, and without it, the novel wouldn't make much sense.

First edition of Moby Dick (via)
Moby Dick is narrated by a wandering sailor named Ishmael, who tells of his adventures on the whaleship Pequod and its monomaniacal captain Ahab. Ishmael learns that a large white sperm whale destroyed Ahab's boat and bit off his leg - driving Ahab to obsessively seek revenge and kill this whale called Moby Dick.

Though most often classified as a novel, Moby Dick is many ways seems unclassifiable - it could be so much as an epic, a saga, a treatise, or perhaps as Phillip Hoare calls it, an "alternative testament," alluding to the way Melville uses biblical allusions and themes to both deconstruct and build on Christian themes.

As a collection of seemingly disjointed chapters, the structure of this novel is not only what sets it apart from contemporary works. Some have gone so far as to call Moby Dick the first postmodern novel.

Another interesting fact that Jillian pointed out, (in her words): "I read that Melville was close friends with Nathaniel Hawthorne and that Hawthorne's style had a profound influence on the dark vs. light allegorical feel of the book. That's why the homage to Hawthorne at the beginning of the novel."

Seemingly endless scholarship has been written on Moby-Dick, analyzing it form every possible angle. However, since this is the first reading of this novel for many of us, we will mainly be discussing our first thoughts and reactions to the text.

Though unpopular in its time, Moby Dick has come to be seen as one of the greatest and most treasured works of American Literature. On Thursday we'll be talking about chapters 1-26. Hope to see you there!

Other resources: 

"What Moby Dick Means to Me" by Philip Hoare (from The Book Bench) - If you need further inspiration to finally crack open this book, I highly recommend this article.  In response to Philbrick's recently published collection of essays (linked below,) Philip Hoare describes how this great novel came to be, how it became popular many years after it was first published, and his personal experience with it. This article is deliciously readable, and Hoare makes Moby Dick sound enticing. Worth the read.

Radio West - "Why Read Moby Dick?" interview with Nathanial Philbrick (aired 12-7-11) Radio West host Doug Febrizio is known for his thoughtful and probing interview style. I listen to his show almost every day. In December, Doug interviewed author Nathanial Philbrick about his new book, Why Read Moby Dick? (Again, see link below.) In this interview, Philbrick explains why he developed such a strong passion for this novel. Also highly recommended. 

Entitled Opinions on Life & Literature - "Moby Dick" (aired 1-11-11) - An interesting, though at times a bit convoluted discussion between two Stanford professors - Robert Harrison of the French and Italian department, and Andrea Nightengale of the Classics and Comparative Literature department. Both claim Moby Dick as their favorite book. The discussion mostly centers on psychoanalytic scholarship, though moves around quite a bit as conversation is apt to do.

Why Read Moby Dick? by Nathanial Philbrick - Nathanial Philbrick is the author of The Heart of the Sea, an account of the true story of a whaling ship on which Moby Dick is based. Philbrick has now written a collection of essays on Melville's novel, illuminating the text for readers in new ways. Philbrick wrote the introduction to my Penguin Classics edition of Moby Dick, which I quite enjoyed. His style is very readable and approachable.