Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick – Book Review

Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick
Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin

Nathaniel Philbrick is a great fan of Moby-Dick, having even written a highly-regarded account of the real maritime tragedy behind Melville’s famous work. As a great lover of this great American maritime novel, Philbrick understandably wants to share his passion with other like-minded readers. To this end he wrote Why Read Moby-Dick, essentially as an academic love letter to Melville’s masterpiece. More than just a personal love letter, though, Philbrick wants to convince anyone who reads his words that they, too, should read Moby-Dick.

“Most of all, however, I am interested in getting you – yes, you – to read, whether it be for the first time or the twelfth time, Moby-Dick. -p. 10

It is important that you know, for context of this review, how I came to read Why Read Moby-Dick. I have personally never read Melville and have alternated between being somewhat terrified of the tome and being intrigued almost to the point of reading Moby-Dick by its passionate defenders. Nobody has ever quite tipped me over the edge into reading it, however, and I picked up Why Read Moby-Dick hoping that Philbrick might finally sway me.

At times, I was nearly convinced. As Philbrick went on about Melville’s lovely prose and his humor I found myself craving the pages. Even more so, when he told me things like :

So it is with Moby-Dick, a novel about a whaling voyage to the Pacific that is also about America racing hell-bent toward the Civil War and so much more. -p. 6

Unfortunately, many of these assertions were not backed up with any evidence, anecdotal or otherwise. Slowly, the lack of support for those statements began to lose me. Presumably, someone who had already read Moby-Dick would understand the references and gain an increased appreciation, but without having any real experience with the book, they meant very little.

Still, I kept an open mind until page 64:

There is a wonderful slapdash quality to the book. Melville inserts chapters of biology, history, art criticism, you name it, sometimes at seeming random.

Stories that meander without much guidance or purpose are an annoyance in my opinion, so with that one sentence Philbrick set me fervently against his beloved book, hundreds of pages of randomness are not an appealing proposition. Again, I can see how such a statement could recall those who had previously read Moby-Dick, reminding them of that farrago of subjects they so enjoyed, but it is not particularly convincing for someone who was unsure about reading it in the first place.

Why Read Moby-Dick is, physically, a gorgeous little book. It would make a wonderful gift for the Melville devotee in your life, and would likely encourage them to return to the book. If you are the devotee, however, do not expect it to convert your loved ones. On the other hand, even Philbrick himself does not necessarily advocate that one read the entire book every time, so perhaps he can at least convince the unsure to read a line, a page, a chapter.

I am not one of those purists who insist on reading the entire untruncated text at all costs. Moby-Dick is a long book, and time is short. Even a sentence, a mere phrase will do. -p. 9

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6 comments to Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick – Book Review

  • I’ve just finished Moby Dick and so was intrigued by your post. Unfortunately it doesn’t sound as though this book will be of much interest to someone who isn’t a Melville scholer. I not sure I can recommend reading Moby Dick, as it is a lot of hard work, but I do recommend reading Leviathan by P Hoare. It gives loads of amazing facts about whales and it did manage to persuade me to read Moby Dick.

    • I don’t think you need to be a scholar, just that you need to have a connection to Moby-Dick. Just having read it might be enough, Philbrick might even make you appreciate what you already read more. It won’t convert anyone, though.

  • Very neat! I read the book long ago and haver been meaning to revisit it. Maybe I should check this out before I do…

  • I have read Philbrick before but I am not sure whether to bother with this one or not. I am pretty certain that nothing could convince me to read Moby Dick!

  • I read Moby Dick..granted a long time ago, but I remember actually enjoying it a great deal! But then I have always had a fascination with whaling.
    I was watching a PBS show on Melville the other night…what a life he led!

  • I tried to read Moby Dick once. It…didn’t…go well. I did make it about halfway before my eyes crossed and bled. lol