Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Do I even need to discuss the plot behind Moby-Dick by Herman Melville? Is there anyone who doesn’t know about Ishmael’s observing Captain Ahab’s overwhelming obsession to bring down the white whale? Does anyone (both the large number who haven’t read it but still know it and the somewhat fewer who actually have read it) not recognize the opening line: “Call me Ishmael?” I really feel this is one book that really doesn’t need a whole lot of discussion.

But, let’s talk about whaling a bit:

In connection with this appellative of “Whalebone whales,” it is of great importance to mention, that however such a nomenclature may be convenient in facilitating allusions to some kind of whales, yet it is in vain to attempt a clear classification of the Leviathan, founded upon either his baleen, or hump, or fin, or teeth; notwithstanding that those marked parts or features very obviously seem better adapted to afford the basis for a regular system of Cetology than any other detached bodily distinctions, which the whale, in his kinds, presents. How then? The baleen, hump, back-fin, and teeth; these are things whose peculiarities are indiscriminately dispersed among all sorts of whales, without any regard to what may be the nature of their structure in other and more essential particulars. Thus, the sperm whale and the humpbacked whale, each has a hump; but there the similitude ceases. Then, this same humpbacked whale and the Greenland whale, each of these has baleen; but there again the similitude ceases. And it is just the same with the other parts above mentioned. In various sorts of whales, they form such irregular combinations; or, in the case of any one of them detached, such an irregular isolation; as utterly to defy all general methodization formed upon such a basis. On this rock every one of the whale-naturalists has split.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for 3rd for Paul Auster, 2nd for Russell Banks, 5th for John Banville, 8th for Andrea Barrett, 7th for Bebe Moore Campbell, 4th for Michael Chabon, 4th for David Anthony Durham, 4th for Jim Harrison, 8th for Adam Haslett, 3rd for John Irving, 7th for Norman Mailer, 9th for Bobbie Ann Mason, 1st for Patrick McGrath, 9th for Joyce Carol Oates, favorite at age 25 for Richard Powers, 7th for Francine Prose, 10th for Ian Rankin, and 9th for Louis D. Rubin Jr.)

Vivid portrayal of the slipperiness of good and evil, depiction of all consuming vengeance, the arrogance of man, the indifferent power of nature, a detailed portrait of whaling, there are so many functions going on in Moby-Dick. Everyone seems to know of it. Of those who have actually read it, the camps are fiercely divided. Some adore it, some hate it, and some hate it so much that they despise that others adore it and insist it shouldn’t be considered a classic.

But, let’s take a minute to talk about whaling:

In one of those southern whalesmen, on a long three or four years’ voyage, as often happens, the sum of the various hours you spend at the mast-head would amount to several entire months. And it is much to be deplored that the place to which you devote so considerable a portion of the whole term of your natural life, should be so sadly destitute of anything approaching to a cosy inhabitiveness, or adapted to breed a comfortable localness of feeling, such as pertains to a bed, a hammock, a hearse, a sentry box, a pulpit, a coach, or any other of those small and snug contrivances in which men temporarily isolate themselves. Your most usual point of perch is the head of the t’ gallant-mast, where you stand upon two thin parallel sticks (almost peculiar to whalemen) called the t’ gallant cross-trees. Here, tossed about by the sea, the beginner feels about as cosy as he would standing on a bull’s horns. To be sure, in cold weather you may carry your house aloft with you, in the shape of a watch-coat; but properly speaking the thickest watch-coat is no more of a house than the unclad body; for as the soul is glued inside of its fleshy tabernacle, and cannot freely move about in it, nor even move out of it, without running great risk of perishing (like an ignorant pilgrim crossing the snowy Alps in winter); so a watch-coat is not so much of a house as it is a mere envelope, or additional skin encasing you. You cannot put a shelf or chest of drawers in your body, and no more can you make a convenient closet of your watch-coat.

Personally, I do look up to Moby-Dick quite a bit. The action parts are layered and gripping. I see all kinds of things in them and am on the edge of my seat. The whaling parts do make the book a real slog to get through, but I see functions those perform as well. The picture it gives of that way of live, the long time building up just to tear down in a single moment, I can see it…though I can also understand why so many get so angry about this book.

But, let’s talk about whaling just a bit more:

I know of only four published outlines of the great Sperm Whale; Colnett’s, Huggins’s, Frederick Cuvier’s, and Beale’s. In the previous chapter Colnett and Cuvier have been referred to. Huggins’s is far better than theirs; but, by great odds, Beale’s is the best. All Beale’s drawings of this whale are good, excepting the middle figure in the picture of three whales in various attitudes, capping his second chapter. His frontispiece, boats attacking Sperm Whales, though no doubt calculated to excite the civil scepticism of some parlor men, is admirably correct and life-like in its general effect. Some of the Sperm Whale drawings in J. Ross Browne are pretty correct in contour; but they are wretchedly engraved. That is not his fault though.

I mean, Melville does take a while to get around to things. He has a marvelous story and wonderfully developed characters, but it is a long walk to get there. Everything is so meticulously laid out. Still, I think there is something in that. He spends so long making everything so concretely there, then he smashes it all in one quick second. Personally, I’m still a fan and I still respect the hell out of Moby-Dick.

Note: before this went live, I came across a Simpsons’ quote I just had to pointlessly add:

Homer: What kind of example would I be if I didn’t take revenge on things?
Lisa: Dad, you can’t take revenge on animals. That’s the whole point of Moby Dick.
Homer: Lisa, the point of Moby Dick is, “Be yourself.”

Bereshith! (Or as we like to call it in English…Genesis)

So.  One of the books in the Top Ten is the Bible.  Dave gladly gave me the opportunity to read it and blog about it.  Now all of you know, the Bible isn’t a short work by any means.   Which means, there will be multiple entries by me on parts of the Bible.  (which I know, might take us to like 12.5 years of books, but hey, the Bible is LONG.  I’ve been reading from it for most of my life and I can say I’ve probably only read about half of it and in piece meal).

A lot of the books of the Bible are shorter, so can be read multiple ones at once.  Genesis is not one of those books.  In fact Genesis has so much happening that I’m splitting it up into two (translation:  I got caught up in the footnotes and sidenotes in my study Bible, so ergo did not finish the entire book of Genesis) parts.  I’ll put up the 2nd blog about Genesis in the next couple of days, Dave will then be back next Thursday with another book.

I’m not sure if I will just keep with the Bible until done with it, or if I’ll read parts, then read something else to blog about and return.  Just letting you know that in advance.

The Bible has six authors that listed it in their top ten.  Andrew Hudgins, Haven Kimmel, Erin McGraw, Richard Powers, Robert Pinsky and James Salter all listed it in their top ten.

I know you’re probably wondering why the Bible is even important to you if you’re not Christian.  Why it’s something that as a book lover, you should even be interested in.  Andrew Hudgins wrote about this in The Top Ten.  He points out that the Bible is a great story itself, also “The Bible is also the source of great stories, by geniuses from Dante to Dostoevsky, Faulkner to Thomas Mann, and the poetry of the Psalms echoes through great poetry from William Blake to Walt Whitman to T.S. Eliot”.  He also says “”the greatest story ever told”, in the majesty of its telling and the power of its message, has taught an entire culture how to think about love, suffering, and transcendence, and it has fundamentally colored the language by which we talk about everything.”  And this is why it’s important, even if not a believer. 

My whole lead in above is also why I’ve split Genesis up into two blogs (I know, it sounds handy, like I’m just making sure that it sounds more planned, but I would have done it whether I had the entire thing ready to talk about or not.  None of y’all came here to read term papers).

Genesis has strongly been held throughout the centuries to have been written by Moses.  It is the first book of the five books that the Jewish religion called “the five fifths of the law (of Moses)”.  Genesis truly is about beginnings, starting with the story of creation, but also of sin and redemption, of blessing and cursing, of society, of marriage and family.  And really, Genesis also is instrumental in understanding the rest of the Bible.  The promise of Christ begins when God curses the serpent and his role in the downfall of Adam and Eve.  Genesis 3:15 “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head and you will strike his heel”.  ( Sin and the serpent were crushed by Christ’s death on the cross, but in the doing so, Jesus was mortally wounded).  And all through the book of Genesis and the Old Testament itself, the promise of Jesus’s coming and salvation go through it.

Genesis is a prose style book.  It’s divided up into ten “accounts”  (the sections start with the word account somewhere in there, Gen 2:4 “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created”.)  There are a few poetic moments in the book.  There is a lyricism to Genesis, and it is rich.  Read it aloud sometime or listen to it read aloud and you will see the lyricism.

First is the creation.  In the Bible it takes six days.  I do not have the interest nor the time to debate about each particular point as I go through here, I am reporting what the text says.  You are free to think the days were actually six 24 hour periods, that each day means a million years, that the story is merely a story.  Some of what I write will be directly related to my own faith, but please remember that mostly I am commenting on the content of the books, much like I would with Madame Bovary or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.   (Sorry.  After the election I just don’t have interest in debating anyone at the moment.  Check back with me in a month or two…or with the way the election was maybe even six.  I might feel more up to discussing potentially contentious items.)  If you have questions, let me know, that’s fine 🙂

Then God makes man.  He has man, named Adam, name all the animals while looking for a suitable helpmate/companion.  Surprisingly, Adam doesn’t find a suitable companion…or not so surprisingly.  Either the animals don’t interact well with humans or they fling poo like the monkeys…haha.  So God puts him into a deep sleep, removes his rib and forms woman from it.  Names her Eve.  They of course, are happy as larks running about.  Interesting note, God already starts talking about marriage in Genesis 2:24, after creation of woman “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother an be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh”.  The serpent comes along and tempts Eve to eat from the tree that God forbade Adam from eating.  Eve eats it.  Adam eats it.  They realize that they are naked and cover themselves.  God comes and finds them hiding.  Of course, beginning the history of people evading responsibility for their actions and blaming others; Gen 3:12 “The man said, “The woman you put here with me–she gave me some fruit from the tree and I ate it.”  V. 13  “Then the Lord God said to the woman “What is this you have done?”  The woman said, “The serpent deceived me and I ate”.

They get cast out of the Garden of Eden.  Then comes along Cain and Abel, their sons.  Cain was a farmer, Abel a shepherd.  They brought offerings to God, Cain just “some fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord”.  But Abel brought “fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock”.  Now, before you carnivores out there all start stating that this shows God wants us all to EAT MEAT URRGGHHH.  God wasn’t upset that Cain brought him some fruit and vegetables.  He was upset because Cain brought “some fruits of the soil”…doesn’t sound very special does it?  Compared to the fat portions from some firstborn of the flock (pretty high quality stuff there).  So Cain gets mad and jealous.  He kills Abel.  Buries him.   Genesis 4:10 “The Lord said, “What have you done?  Listen!   Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.  Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand”.  Abel’s voice crying from the ground where he was buried, sounds like plot twists and themes in many books I’ve read.

Cain is cast out to wander for all his days, he decides to build a city and has a few children of his own.  His family line doesn’t amount to much, and as you will soon see, eventually is drowned out.  Adam and Eve have another son, naming him Seth.

The second “account” begins.  Genesis 5:1  “This is the written account of Adam’s line”.  A genealogy follows, with the refrain of “and then he died” after each person.  Here’s another literary device.  There is an impact here, that makes the one different line stand out “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away”.  Basically, Enoch so pleased God that he was taken away without suffering death as the rest of his ancestors and heirs did.  The line ends with Noah.  Then chapter 6:9 “This is the account of Noah”.

Most people know about the flood, and the ark, and the two of each animal being crowded onto the ark.  Basically God is so displeased with the wickedness of all of mankind, except Noah that he decides to destroy his entire creation.  There is some debate amongst different theological groups as to whether angels had come down and began to mate with women Gen 6:4 “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days-and also afterward-when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them.  They were the heroes of old, men of renown”.  All of Noah’s family and all the animals get in the ark, and the flood waters take them afloat.  Months later, the waters finally start to recede and Gen 8:1 “But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark and he sent a wind over the earth and the waters receded”.  God then makes a covenant with Noah, where he blesses Noah and his sons.  He states that they need to get busy to repopulate the earth and from Genesis 9:11  “I establish my covenant with you:  Never again will all ife be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  He then names the rainbow as the sign of that covenant  v16  “Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth”.

Then we have Ham observing his father in the throes of drunkeness (Noah’s youngest son).  Noah, upon waking, curses his son and states that his descendants will be slaves to his brothers.  (However, it can’t be used to justify the slavery of different skinned people since those cursed were Canaanites who were Caucasian).

And that’s where I leave you.  Join in next time for some good old incest, brothers attempting to murder other brothers, and potential sacrificial offerings of sons.