Monday, August 7, 2017

The genetic code of America

There's nothing rhetorical about the question Nathaniel Philbrick asks in the title of Why Read Moby-Dick?, for his 2011 book, brief as it is, answers it in full.

Herman Melville's American classic, he says, has just about whatever one might want in a book: history (he calls it "nothing less than the genetic code of America"), natural history, poetry, theology, humor, psychology, philosophy and a terrific story besides. OK, female characters are scarce, so don't expect great romance, but there is action, suspense and drama aplenty.

What Philbrick doesn't say is that the fact that Melville packs so much into Moby-Dick is what makes the novel intimidating to readers. If it's just the story one wants, those detailed chapters on whales and whaling can be off-putting. Of course, they can also be skipped or skimmed without missing any of the story, as I learned as a college freshman when the novel was assigned reading. When I read it again years later, I gave more attention to these chapters.

Philbrick calls this "the greatest American novel ever written." Others might argue in favor of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises or some other work, but Philbrick makes a good case for Meville. He says it "deserves to be called our American bible."

While reading By the Book, Pamela Paul's collection of interviews with notable writers, and a few others, about their reading habits, I was struck by how often Moby-Dick is mentioned. Joyce Carol Oates says it should be required reading for American presidents. "This truly contains multitudes of meanings: the Pequod is the ship of state, the radiantly mad Captain Ahab a dangerous 'leader,' the ethnically diverse crew our American citizenry." It is one of the books Michael Chabon would want on his desert island. Andrew Solomon somehow missed it in his literary education but still yearns to read it. Actor Bryan Cranston says it is the novel that has had the biggest impact on his life.

Unfortunately, Why Read Moby-Dick? is a book most likely to be read by those of us who have already read the novel, rather than those who haven't. Perhaps it should have been titled Why Read Moby-Dick Again? It certainly has made me want to.

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