Reading Moby-Dick, one chapter a day

For those of us who were not required to read it in high school, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick remains one of the most daunting novels in classic American literature.  It’s big! It’s scary! It has chapters about whale anatomy! No wonder so many avid readers quietly duck their heads and excuse themselves from conversation every time the great white whale comes up.

I’m finally getting around to reading Moby-Dick thanks to the Moby Dick Big Read, a terrific free serialized audiobook. Every day, a new chapter of Moby-Dick is published on their website, free to download on iTunes or listen to in your browser. The readers are varied, from actors like Tilda Swinton, Stephen Fry, and Benedict Cumberbatch, to novelists, scholars, politicians, and modern-day seamen. Melville may have been longwinded, but each chapter of Moby-Dick is fairly short, making it perfect listening material.

My primary reason for taking the plunge is that so many contemporary novelists are obviously writing in Melville’s shadow. After making my way through Moby-Dick, hopefully I’ll have a better understanding of these books that were inspired by it:

Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund: This historical epic takes a minor character from Moby-Dick (Ahab’s wife, as you might imagine) and builds her story into a beautiful tale about the American experience for women in the early 19th century.

Railsea by China Mieville (who’s scheduled to read a chapter for the Big Read): My hero Mieville not only (almost) shares a name with Melville, he’s obviously a big fan. This is a fantasy writer who knows his sea creatures. Railsea is his newest novel for teens and adults, and, yes, it includes a (rail)sea voyage in search of a great white…mole.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (who read Chapter 16 in the Big Read): This is a baseball novel, and a great one at that, but its debt to Moby-Dick is obvious, even to an ignorant reader like myself. The college baseball team in question, the Harpooners (get it?) functions much like the crew of a whaling ship. Harbach’s fascination with male relationships comes directly from Melville’s source material.

If you’re still not sold, you could always pick up Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick (who reads Chapter 14 in the Big Read), a collection of essays on the cultural relevance of the novel. Philbrick is also the author of In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, about the voyage that inspired Melville’s classic.

-Sara D., Public Services Librarian, CADL Downtown Lansing

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