Thursday, August 4, 2011

Day 3-A Book that completely surprised you (bad/good)

This was going to be another easy book to pick. Moby Dick by Herman Melville.

I had to read it in "American Literature" class in college. We spent an inordinate amount of time on this, never really getting through the first 6 chapters. There was, in the instructor's view, so much to address, but we had at least 10 more books to discuss before the semester ended so she had us read the last 3 chapters and skip the middle. It fell into the 'loathed' category only because we spent way too much time on it.

But, three years after graduating college, I was looking for something to read and found the slightly battered copy in a box. As this is considered a classic, I felt I should give it another try. Low and behold, once I got past the chapter discussing the minutiae of whaling and the chapter on the different kinds of whales which were hunted, which fell into the first 8 chapters, I got to the middle and it was funny. As Melville discussed life on the whaling boat and added more nuances of character to Captain Ahab, Queequeg and Ishmael, he brought out the humanity of those on the boat and that humanity was, at times very funny.

I knew Melville had taken jobs on ships, including a whaling vessel, but the depth of that experience really comes through later in the novel. As Ahab's obsession grows, Melville weaves into the narrative just enough factual information that the story stays grounded in reality. It makes the ending all the more powerful. You've just got to get through the first 8-9 chapters.

In looking for an appropriate illustration for this post, I found this. This is NOT Moby Dick. First of all, the ship is not correct. That is not a whaling ship of the 19th Century. This is Jaws masquerading as Moby Dick. The only thing the two have in common is that they take place on the ocean. There are documented stories of whales attacking and sinking whaling boats. Early whaling was a very treacherous occupation. But this book cover doesn't relate to the story. Someone picking this up thinking they are going to get a book about a monster whale attacking ships in the 20th century is going to be disappointed.

This book is quite ingrained in our culture, too. My friend, Sheila, posted to my Facebook note about this that she became interested in reading the original when one of the Star Trek books she was reading had Mr. Spock go back in time and become the "Ishmael" who is the narrator. The opening line, "Call me 'Ishmael'" can be sometimes written as "Call me, Ishmael".

The online game I play, "World of Warcraft" is well known for slathering pop culture references throughout the game. One of the most interesting boss kills is the whale shark. When you kill him, you get the achievement, "From Hell's Heart, I Stab at Thee", which is a direct quote from Chapter 135, and are the final words Ahab says,
Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!
The World of Warcraft achievement says, "Kill a whale shark in spite of or because he drops no loot."  I hope this is just enough information that someone who plays the game will investigate more and, ultimately, pick up the book and read it. I hope they will be as pleasantly surprised as I was.

Beverage:  Edinburgh's Finest Tea


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