Books Reviews

Moby Dick; or, the Whale – Herman Melville

Moby Dick; or, the Whale is a modern epic. The novel was published in 1851. October in Britain, and then November in America. Ten years prior to this Herman Melville, the author, had begun four years of sailing on whaling vessels. The size, and subject scope, of the novel reflects the author’s own experiences at sea. It is hard to imagine the dedication and commitment which sailing and whaling demands. Melville’s, or ‘Ishmael’s‘, lengthy digressions and in-depth studies give the reader some idea of the all-encompassing nature of whaling though.

The novel goes further though. It has many allusions to other whaling works of literature, and is overtly inspired by Shakespeare and the Bible. More than anything it is a darkly humourous study of the humanity which Melville encountered throughout his life.

On finishing this epic of Cetology, I realised I wouldn’t quite know how to review it. It would be difficult to put my experience of reading it into words. And this experience wouldn’t necessarily equate to any one else’s experience.

I listened to this podcast episode:

As you listen, you can hear each of the speakers rushing through their notes in their vain attempts to contain and catalogue the ideas, the meanings and symbols from the novel. Each has their own idea of what makes the novel so great. My favourite part is right at the end where each of the participants are discussing together all of the things which they were not able to speak about within the forty-five minutes of the episode!

Instead of ‘reviewing’ then, here are some of my favourite quotes / short passages from the novel. Though it must be said it would take forever to include even a selection of the best quotes… These are the ones which I highlighted while reading! (And I did quite a lot of listening, so a lot of that won’t be included here).

Many Moby Dick Quotes…

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. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. […] it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

Chapter I – Loomings

… there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid. The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard theives entailed upon us.

Chapter I – Loomings

I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote.

Chapter I – Loomings

Better sleep with a sober cannibal, than a drunken Christian.

Chapter III – The Spouter Inn

Damn me, but all things are queer, come to think of ’em. But that’s against my principles. Think not, is my eleventh commandment; and sleep when you can, is my twelfth…

Chapter XXIX – Enter Ahab; to Him, Stubb

The French are the lads for painting action.

Chapter LVI – Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes

Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.

Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!

Chapter LVIII – Brit

Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal’s jaw? Cannibals? Who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy paté-de-foie-gras.

Chapter LXV – The Whale as a Dish

Squeeze! Squeeze! Squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,—Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.

Chapter XCIV – A Squeeze of the Hand

Undoubtedly I could go on…

If you still need convincing read this article which gives some great reasons for the novel’s continued relevance and importance. @philipwhale wrote that article, and also curated the Moby Dick big read which is how I listened to some chapters of the book.

All of the quotes are taken from the Gutenberg file of the book here.

One last thing – I probably read Moby Dick because Bob Dylan mentioned it in his Nobel Lecture and I recently enjoyed reading his autobiographical work Chronicles.

Books Reviews

Chronicles Volume One – Bob Dylan

Who is Bob Dylan?

A twentieth century legend, a giant of contemporary American music (and letters), with an unmistakable, inimitable ever-changing drawl? Or a humble folk musician – forever imitating his own idols, expressing himself through music, lyric and hard work, who happened to be in the right place (or the wrong place, perhaps) in the early 1960’s? Let’s dig into Chronicles Volume One to try and find out.

A Folk Musician

Bob Dylan, in Chronicles, tries hard to convince the reader that he’s only the hard-working folk musician. That the right place was New York. That all those people in the sixties got it wrong. Or that they hung on to something that didn’t exist and never could have. Or as he put it:

I really was never any more that what I was – a folk musician who gazed into the gray mist with tear-blinded eyes and made up songs that floated in a luminous haze.

Bob Dylan – Chronicles Volume One

He goes on to say that he wasn’t a preacher performing miracles, but that the attention and adoration and harrasment that he received was of that level and that it would drive anyone mad. That while he was attempting to raise children and start a family people were calling for him to lead the people. To bring down the Roman Empire (as in America, and what it had become).

Thankfully Bob doesn’t dwell too much on this part of his life, and chooses to explore his feelings and experiences before the amazing fame took hold. Also he goes into some depth about after his status had subsided (from ‘Prophet, Messiah, Saviour’ down to ‘Legend, Icon, Enigma’, ‘anachronisms’ which are, according to Bob, easier to get around with…).

Middle Chapters

Bob recalls working on later albums in some of the middle chapters and dives deep into the writing and recording process for his 1989 album Oh Mercy. The work involved sounds draining, the effort intense. His relationships, with his wife, the musicians and his producer, are tested by the experience but remain strong. Some of the insecurities which, one imagines, all aging/changing artists must deal with are written about head on. His experience with fellow aging rockers The Grateful Dead sounds like it would make an interesting book in itself.

Where the Book Really Shines

The first and last of the chapters – in which Bob recalls leaving his hometown, living in New York, mainly on other people’s sofas, performing anywhere he could with his ‘harp‘ and his ‘double-0 Martin acoustic‘, really standout though. They’re fantastic to read. His rambling style in these sections is great. It’s nostalgic, indulgent, and passionate – these are some of his fondest memories. They are the creation myth of this towering figure.

The details, in the odd way memories have, are at times vague and murky. At other times they are bright and clear. The specifics of place and weather and timings and all kinds of interesting minutiae bundled in with vagaries and generalisation.

And the people. The names are eclectic. People you’ve heard of, many you’ve not, people you’re supposed to know and those you aren’t. Those that shine in Bob’s memory, and a few who don’t.

His memories of listening to records over and over, and of trying his hardest to find different records by the artists he admired, of encountering others greatly inspired by those artists – his awe at discovering Woody Guthrie’s music, and how Robert Johnson’s music, lyrics and image had him ‘possessed’ on the very same day that he signed to Columbia records, and many more gems are found in these chapters.

Legend, Humble Musician, or Both?

As mentioned Bob tries hard to convince you he’s simply a folk singer and nothing more, however, with these memories and anecdotes he manages only to confirm his legendary status…

Apparently Bob has, at times, been working on a follow up in the form of Volume Two, but reddit seems to think differently…

Books Reviews

The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man and the Sea is perhaps Hemingway’s most well loved, and certainly his most well known novel. He even saw it as probably his greatest piece of writing – the remarks which he made while it was being published certainly give that impression.

Books Reviews

Rabbit, Run – John Updike

Beginning with a kid’s back-alley basketball game, Updike’s novel, ‘Rabbit, Run’, lures the reader in by foreshadowing the deeper events to come later. The game is interrupted by an ‘odd adult’, 26 year old Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom – our (anti-?) hero. Even here, on the basketball court, where Rabbit feels most at ease in his own skin, he is an outsider and unwanted. Imagine how he fits into the wider American society – the middle class family life, the department store job demonstrating and selling the ‘Magipeel’, and being a member of the Episcopal Church. It is this basketball game that initially represents his estrangement from society, a theme which develops deeply throughout the novel.

Books Reviews

Stoner – John Williams

“In the University library he wandered through the stacks, among the thousands of books, inhaling the musty odor of leather, cloth, and drying page as if it were an exotic incense.”

Although I thought I was 50 years late to reading (and writing a review of) Stoner (1965) by John Williams, it turns out I’m really only a year or two late. Apparently this unassuming and, in some ways, unremarkable novel was the must read book of 2013 according to Julian Barnes writing in December of that year. Anyway, it is indeed a substantially good read – worthy of the fanfare it received recently, and almost frustrating that it did not receive similar reviews during Williams’s own lifetime.

Books Reviews

The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro

More to this tale then meets the eye…

Kazuo Ishiguro has been receiving mixed reviews for his first published work in ten years, The Buried Giant. A highly anticipated arrival onto the book market, due in part to the length between releases, but mainly because of Ishiguro’s literary history and triumphs.