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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Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind by Ellen F. Brown and John Wiley, Jr. – Book Review

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller’s Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood by Ellen F Brown and John Wiley, Jr.
Published by Taylor Trade

In 1935, Margaret Mitchell had a manuscript. By 1940, her book had sold well over a million copies and the movie based on it became the first film ever to gross one million dollars in a single week. Over the next 20 years, Macmillan continually received fan mail for Gone With the Wind, an average of ninety letters a month. By 2010, more than thirty million copies of Gone With the Wind had been printed world-wide. How, though, did this happen? Luck, hard work, or some combination thereof?

This is the question that Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind aims to answer. It is not a biography of Margaret Mitchell herself, but of her epic work of historical fiction. The story is a surprisingly fascinating one. In many ways, Margaret Mitchell and her husband John Marsh blazed a trail for many future American authors, particularly in the realms of overseas rights. As Brown and Wiley make clear, the story of Gone With the Wind‘s success is the story of Marsh and Mitchell’s tireless work. It would have  been easy for everyone but Mitchell to make money from Gone With the Wind, but she and her husband made sure that did not happen.

People with interest in Gone With the Wind and the publishing business in general will find much to fascinate in this captivating history of the Gone With the Wind  empire. Highly recommended.

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A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz – Audiobook Review

A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz, narrated by Sean Pratt
Published in audio by Penguin Audio, published in print by Penguin Press

Deresiewicz was recently interviewed on the podcast I cohost, What’s Old is New


When Bill Deresiewicz was in graduate school, he knew exactly the authors he wanted to study, including among them some of the manlier men of literature in the 20th century. Jane Austen was nowhere on his list of authors that intrigued him. In fact, when he was finally assigned one of her works, Emma, for class he was annoyed just thinking of the girly drivel he was going to have to read. And then something happened.

After complaining about the minutia-laden novel for nearly half the book, Deresiewicz had a revelation when Emma behaved cattily towards her friends and neighbors:

By creating a heroine who felt exactly as I did, and who behaved precisely as I would have in her situation, she was showing me my own ugly face…. Austen, I realized, had not been writing about everyday things because she couldn’t think of anything else to talk about. She had been writing about them because she wanted to show how important they really are. All that trivia hadn’t been marking time until she got to the point. It was the point. Austen wasn’t silly and superficial; she was much, much smarter – and much wiser – than I could have imagined. -p. 12 (Emma)

This realization changed Deresiewicz’s life in more ways than one. First, it transformed his interactions with friends and family:

There was one more thing about my life that had to change, now that I’d read Emma: my relationships with the people around me. Once I started to see myself for the first time, I started seeing them for the first time, too. I began to notice and care about what they might be experiencing, and they began to develop the depth and richness of literary characters. -p. 36-37 (Emma)

Perhaps more importantly, though, this experience with the transformative power of Jane Austen’s work led Deresiewicz into a life-long love affair with Austen that would teach him what it really meant to be a human being.

Thoughts on the story:

Part memoir, part literary criticism, and part Austen biography, A Jane Austen Education is an absolutely wonderful little book. Particularly impressive was the balance Deresiewicz struck while explaining the revelations Jane Austen brought him. It is not uncommon in this sort of memoir for either the events/books or the lessons to feel shoehorned in. This was simply not the case in A Jane Austen Education. Every lesson seemed to be authentically in tune with what was happening in Deresiewicz’s life at the time.

In addition to outlining the lessons learned, A Jane Austen Education also serves to educate the reader about Austen and her work. A number of biographical details are included in order to ground Austen’s oeuvre in her reality. Also offered was a scholar’s understanding of Austen’s work, including a comparison of Austen and her great detractor Charlotte Bronte that I myself found revelatory in understanding why I enjoy Jane Austen and couldn’t really stand Jane Eyre:

In Pride and Prejudice, reason triumphs over feeling and will. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s own typically Romantic coming-of-age story, emotion and ego overcome all obstacles. Those of us who chose Pride and Prejudice couldn’t imagine how you could stand to read anything as immature and overwrought as Jane Eyre. Those who chose Jane Eyre couldn’t believe that you would subject your students to something as stuffy and insipid as Pride and Prejudice. -p. 70 (P&P)

Thoughts on the audio production:

Sean Pratt did a fabulous job narrating what at times was a really very personal memoir. Like all of the best memoir narrators, he became Deresiewicz for the duration of the audiobook, to the point where I was momentarily taken aback when I spoke to Deresiewicz for What’s Old is New and he sounded different than the voice who had relayed his story to me

For a more completely review of this as an audiobook, please see my review for Audiofile Magazine.


Highly recommended in either print or audio for fans of Jane Austen, or anyone who is interested in the power of literature to shape lives.

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Source: Audiofile Magazine.
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Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch – Book Review

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch
Published by Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins

When Nina Sankovitch’s sister died of a quickly killing cancer at the age of 46, Nina was heartbroken. Unable to figure out how life without Anne-Marie could even continue to go on, Nina was in a serious funk; certainly she was still functioning, but the day-to-day living was largely without joy, and the reality of grief was wearing Nina down, bit by bit. Finally, Nina realized she had to do something to take back her life, not to forget Anne-Marie, but to make peace with her passing, to escape the grief. It was then that she decided on a year of reading.

Books. The more I thought about how to stop and get myself back together as one sane, whole person, the more I thought about books. I thought about escape. Not running to escape, but reading to escape. –p. 20

And so Nina decided that her job, for one year of her own life, would be simply to read. She was going to read one book per day, and begin every morning by writing a review of the previous day’s book on her website, ReadAllDay.org. Along the way, she began to be revived by her time with books, a passion which she and Anne-Marie had always shared.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is an absolutely lovely account of the healing power of literature, of the power that books new and old have to speak to our lives today. That said, it had the potential to go very wrong, a book about all the books one person read in a year could easily be banal, a series of “and then I read… and it was….” Sankovitch managed to take the books she read and the lessons learned from them, though, and weave them together with the year of her life as well as some family history to create a cohesive and compelling narrative with many quotable lines about the power inherent in books.

Similarly risky was the structuring of the narrative with Anne-Marie’s death at the beginning. The reader does not know either Nina or Anne-Marie when their story starts, and so the grief of Anne-Marie’s passing could have fallen flat, been simply an uncomfortable truth. Instead, Nina draws the reader immediately into her family and her own feelings, to the point where you would be better off not starting this book in a public place (I nearly cried in Chipotle).

A story of individual growth and rediscovery, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair manages to avoid the trap of becoming maudlin and ridiculous as so many in that genre fall into, and instead has a note of universality for readers. Recommended.

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Source: Publisher for an episode of What’s Old is New.
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How Shakespeare Changed Everything by Stephen Marche – Book Review

How Shakespeare Changed Everything by Stephen Marche
Published by Harper Books, an imprint of Harper Collins

The game is up and I’m in a pickle. Perhaps I’m just being cold-blooded, but there will be no reprieve. Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!

I imagine you would be hard pressed to find anyone who denies the influence of Shakespeare on the modern world. Or, in the case of those anti-Stratfordians, the work that is generally attributed to Shakespeare, regardless of who actually wrote it.To begin with, he coined some 1700 words, many of which are still used today. Stephen Marche’s thesis, though, is somewhat more than a nebulous claim of general influence. He asserts that Shakespeare actually changed, well, everything. Everything from sex to racial relations to teenagers. Marche even sees Obama’s victory – and the continuing opposition to him – as being heavily influenced by Shakespearean tropes:

The fact that 18 percent of Americans still believe that Obama is Muslim, the continuing power of the birther movement despite the clear-cut evidence that he was born in America, testify to Othello‘s power as a prepared narrative. For many Americans, Obama remains a noble Moor in the mold that Shakespeare cast. – p. 21

Except I’m pretty sure that isn’t the case. I would say pure and simple racism, with a bit of overwhelming political ideology, and a heavy helping of propaganda. I really don’t buy the whole ‘inspired by Shakespeare’ thing in this case, and on page 21 of 200, that isn’t a particularly good sign. Generally Marche didn’t seem to be quite as out in left field as that, but he did have a tendency to (vastly) overstate his case. For example:

Shakespeare has improved your sex life. If you’ve had sex without shame, sex for pleasure, for fun, for any other reason than procreation within marriage – Shakespeare, more than any other single figure, is responsible for the climate of permissiveness that made it possible. -p. 39-40

Because, you know, nobody ever had sex for pleasure before Shakespeare. I’m surprised the human race even made it to the 17th century.

Not to say that How Shakespeare Changed Everything was completely without value. Certainly there were many interesting facts about Shakespeare, his work and how aspects of our modern world match up. Certainly there are have been many homages to Shakespeare in the 400 odd years since he was writing, and many of these homages have shaped our everyday lives. To grant him complete agency over sex or Lincoln’s assassination, simply because his words and creations have been co-opted by others, seems a bit unwarranted.

Interesting if you are looking for evidence of how Shakespeare continues to be important in the world (and that is right up my alley), but don’t pick it up if hyperbole annoys you.

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* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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