Moby-Dick is perhaps the quintessential “Great American Novel”. And yet so many people I talk to still haven’t read it, or have tried to read the abridged version, only to come away confused. I often tell people that reading the abridged version of Moby-Dick is rather like reading a mystery novel with every left hand page and the last chapter removed. You can read such a book, yes, but it is more fun and satisfying to read the uncut work.
As usual when I read books like Moby-Dick, I want to learn more. I was able to find two great works about the story of the whale ship that inspired Herman Melville. The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex was written by the Essex’s first mate Owen Chase and is a gripping account of the Essex’s doomed voyage. In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick is a longer account of the wreck of the Essex, and is well researched and presented. Both books are excellent alone. However, when read together, they are astonishing in their depth.
Floating Gold by Christopher Kent, is a history of ambergris, which was one of the reasons everyone was out hunting whales in the first place. It is a humorous and interesting look at something which was a complete unknown for me. I had no idea ambergris had a distinctive foul odor that belies its use in perfume making.
Lastly, I would recommend Why Read Moby-Dick, also by Nathaniel Philbrick. It is a charming slip of a book, but also quite rich in detail. Philbrick places Moby-Dick in its historical context, explores how Melville wrote and re-wrote his masterpiece, and shows us thatit is still quite relevant in our time.
Behind the Novel is a new feature that gives a full, examined look at the historical, social, and cultural context of a particular novel by reviewing other books on specific topics and issues. This feature is written by Claudette and will be reoccurring monthly.