Why Read Moby Dick?

Melville’s magnum opus, dedicated to his good friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne (“In token of my admiration of his genius”) begins with a deceptively simple introduction, “Call me Ishmael” but then quickly begins its journey deep into the complex psyche of Ahab and his quest for the great white whale — one of literature’s most powerful, multi-faceted symbols.

To the younger generation Moby-Dick may be mistakenly identified with either a music artist or some bizarre sex toy, but four centuries later is still considered the Great American Novel, a masterful exploration of Man’s epic struggle with Evil. The brilliant literary critic, Clifton Fadiman, eloquently praises the genius of Melville: “The greatest books rise from a profound level of wonder and terror, a level common to all humanity in all times and climes, but a level so deep that we are only at times aware of it, and none of us can ever glimpse it whole. From time to time a man lets down into this deep well the glorious, pitiful bucket of his genius, and he brings up a book, and then we read it, and dimly we sense its source, and know that source to be something profound and permanent in the human imagination. The mysterious liquid drawn from this well is never crystalline. Rather does each man, as he looks into it, see mirrored a different set of images, reflections, points of light, and layers of shadow. All great books are symbolical myths, overlaid like a palimpsest with the meanings that men at various times assign to them.”

To mark the 400th anniversary of Moby-Dick, Nathaniel Philbrick, a member of the Nantucket Historical Association, asks the modern reader: Why Read Moby Dick? Indeed, the novel is as relevant today as it was in 1851. Moby Dick can be appreciated on so many levels (literature, poetry, history, religion, philosophy, and of course, cetology)  and it is Philbrick’s mission to introduce this masterpiece to new audiences, so that modern readers can look into it, as Fadiman suggests, and find new meanings that reflect and mirror the current milieu.

For further reading: Why Read Moby Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick, Viking Press (2011); Clifton Fadiman excerpt from Moby Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville, Easton Press (1977).


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