The Whale, or, Moby-Dick
© 1851 Herman Melville
The Whale, alternatively called Moby-Dick, is a comprehensive 19th century guide to whaling and whales from a novelist who decided to take a hand at writing nonfiction. Such a thing was not unusual in those days, as many people were amateur naturalists — Darwin, for instance, originally intended to be a country parson who dabbled in geology. Melville used his prior whaling experience and considerable passion for the subject as the basis of his research, though — novelist as he was — he could not help but insert a splash of narrative into the scientific survey. It’s an interesting distraction, of course, but even the spectre of an obsessed captain with a pegleg in search of revenge doesn’t cover over the fact that Melville, for all his interest in the subject, is still…off. He insists that whales are fish, for instance. The fictional element is quite interesting in its own right, of course, featuring an young chap with a hunger for adventure befriending a strange man from the far corners of the world, and then being thrown into the rough and tumble world of whaling while the ship sails towards its doom, badgering every other ship it meets with queries on whether they’ve seen The Whale or not. This fictional aspect has a mythic quality about it, especially given the origins of the name Ahab — a king who angered God by turning to idolatry and who was later destroyed and his body tossed to the dogs in judgment. Returning, however, to the main course — whales, their behavior, the hunting of them — I wish Melville had imposed more organization. While there’s a great deal of information here, I don’t quite understand why it’s still regarded as a classic of scientific literature, alongside The Origin of Species and On the Motions of the Heavenly Spheres.
Please note that the above paragraph is a thoroughly tongue-in-cheek ribbing of Moby-Dick, a book that would be as short as The Old Man and the Sea if the voluminous content about whales, whaling, whale-boats, and Wales were removed and the story left alone I enjoyed this book and this review for all the wrong reasons!