Sunday, July 17, 2011

Reading Moby Dick

I wonder why it took me until this week to begin reading Moby Dick the Herman Melville classic? I was enamored with the story from the moment I saw the 1956 movie starring Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab and Richard Basehart as Ishmael.  My Mother took us to the Detroit Art Institute to see this movie.  She knew that book was an American classic and wanted us to be familiar with it.  The entire experience made an impact on me and I made a commitment to read the book   I just never committed to when.

I started to honor that commitment, once, shortly after seeing the movie.  I took the book out from the Monnior Branch of the Detroit Public Library..  I was probably only in fifth grade.  I was too young and book was too thick and the words and language were too obtuse.  I never made it past page two or three.  Later, either in high school or college, I actually bought a copy of the book.  Of course, I did not read it then.  The book has sat dutifully on various bookshelves in my various homes   Somehow in the move to Illinois, I am not sure exactly where the book is.  

Living in Connecticut, I learned about non-stop readings of the great book every summer in Mystic Seaport.  They have also been doing the same for the past fifteen years in New Bedford, MA the whaling center of the US when the book was written.  I thought about reading the book and perhaps kicking off the reading of the book by attending the opening of the Mystic event.  My work schedule precluded that from ever happening.

On one family vacation, we went whale watching once on a visit to Cape Cod.  The boat we took was manned by oceanographers who were quite knowledgeable with the habits, patterns, and numbers of whales as well as the history of the whaling in the region.  The Stellwagen Bank region off of Cape Cod are summer feeding waters for whales.  These folks were dedicated to preserving the bank and felt it as part of their mission to lead these whale watch tours and educate the public.  We learned that whales were so plentiful when the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock that they were actually frolicking in great numbers in the waters around where the Mayflower had anchored.

On the same trip, we went to the US National Seashore on Cape Cod.  There is a fabulous museum there documenting mans relationship with the sea in that particular region.  The museum focused heavily on whale hunting and the importance it had on the local economy.   Whale oil was used for lamps.  The baleen was the plastic of that era and used in many products.  The meat, skin, and bones were also used.  I remember seeing a ledger from a ship and that revenue from one saling trip was over $200,000.  $200,000 in 1850 dollars is valued at more than $5 million in today’s economy and that is using a most conservative conversation rate.  Until I visited this museum and saw that ledger, I never realized just how important and lucrative the whaling industry was in those days.

I might have realized this had I actually read Moby Dick.  

The novel was first published in 1851.  Melville knew what of he wrote having served on a whaling vessel for two year in 1841 - 1842.  His book, which originally titled The Whale, was published in three editions and received with mixed reviews.  It was not until the 1920s when it began to take on mythic proportions.  Today it is considered The Great American Novel.   2001 marked the 150th anniversary of the novel and it merited events and media coverage including The New York Times.  It was then that I learned then these facts about the book and that Melville was born, lived most of his life, and died in New York City.  

What made me start reading it this week?

A week ago, I purchased an iPad.  While playing around with it the first few days I had it.  I was exploring the library and reading application that came pre-installed on the device.  I wanted to download a book and see how the iPad reader compared to my Nook.  As I did want to spend any money on an e-book.  So, I perused the free section and found Moby Dick and promptly downloaded it and read the opening lines.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.

Wow.  Why hadn’t I read this earlier?  How did this not engage even the fifth grade me?  I was mesmerized by Melville’s words.  I went on to read to read the first chapter.  I did not understand all the language from 150 years ago.  At first , I was actually happy that I did not have an annotated and heavily footnoted edition like I met have read in a high school or college English course.   Shortly and quite by accident,  I realized that e-readers have wonderful features.  For example, Melville uses the word counterpane which I took from the context to be a kind of blanket.  If I had an annotated edition, I might have flipped to the back and read that it was indeed a kind of quilted bedcover.  With the iPad, I simply taped on the word a definition popped up.  I was pretty impressed.

The first sentence is so simply powerful that I did look up see who Ishmael was.  Again, I reveal my ignorance by admitting I did not know and probably should have.  Ishmael was the first born son of Abraham.  Abraham’s wife Sara could not conceive so she suggested that Abraham take her hand maiden, an Egyptian named Hagar as his second wife.  They had a son named Ishmael.  Ismael was to the heir of the house of Abraham and the nation of Israel.  When Ishmael was in his early teens, Sara got pregnant and gave birth to Ishmael’s half-brother Isaac.  As will happen in multi-wive households, Sarah convinced Abraham to favor her Isaac over Hagar’s Ishmael.   Abraham released Ishmael and Hagar from their slave status and banished them.  Ishmael, the disinherited, went on to establish a life for himself and had twelve children.  Call him Ishmael indeed.

I have since read three more chapters and plan to read a chapter each day or two.  I am going to  let the language and meaning wash over me.  I already admire this American Ishmael and his view of his world.

With my recent posting on Henry Wadsworth Longellow,, and now this on Moby Dick.  I seem to be focused a bit on New England in the mid 1800s.

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