Friday, November 14, 2014

Reading Around Moby-Dick

Moby-Dick - we've heard it referred to as "The Great Unread American Novel". People tend to shy away from the size, the subject matter (though many people have a working knowledge of the book's themes), the ponderous writing style (although some base this opinion mostly on the book's opening line, "Call me Ishmael", having not progressed much further).  Okay, full disclosure: we haven't read it.

But Melville has been in the news recently - there's a new movie coming out about the whaling voyage on which Melville based the book, and an 1841 crew list for a whaling ship has been found that numbers Melville amongst its band.  (Apparently, he deserted after 4 months, but the voyage inspired his maritime novels.) We thought, maybe it's time to give Melville's whale of a story a look-see!

How did this Moby-Dick come about, anyway? Melville was born in New York City in 1819 and lived there until 1850, except for 5 years at sea. His first book, Typee, was published in 1845, and based on his South Seas experiences. In 1850, already working on Moby-Dick, he moved to Massachusetts and met Nathaniel Hawthorne, an intense friendship which proved pivotal to his novel. During this time, he had also married and started a family. In 1857, Melville gave up writing prose for poetry, though he was not successful in this endeavor. In his later years, Melville worked as a customs inspector for the City of New York. He died in 1891.

But back to Moby-Dick. On November 14, 1851, the American edition of Moby-Dick was published. (The English edition, titled The Whale - there had been a last-minute title change - had already been published the month before.) Melville had spent a year and a half writing the book, now considered a classic, and it was dedicated to Hawthorne, though the friendship did not last. Even in the 1870s, one reader called it "the strangest, wildest, and saddest story I have ever read". However, only 3,200 copies were sold in Melville's lifetime and it was out of print when he died. Melville already had been acclaimed for earlier works and considered Moby-Dick to be his magnum opus, so he was wounded by its reception.

Though the novel was re-published shortly after Melville's death, it was not until the 1920s that it reached its current standing in the canon of American literature, with  Carl Van Doren calling it "the pinnacle of American Romanticism". Moby-Dick's first cinematic adaptation also came in the 1920s - the dramatically retitled The Sea Beast, but the most famous adaptation was John Huston's in 1956 (with a screenplay by Ray Bradbury!).

Answer us truthfully - have you ever read Moby-Dick: Or, The Whale?  And if so, did you read it because you had to, or for pleasure?  Did you finish it?  What did you think? Did you read Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, about the shipwreck that inspired Melville?And finally, are you more likely to read Melville (or Philbrick) now that there's a major motion picture based on In The Heart of the Sea coming out next year?

If this new attention give to the novel and a little backstory hasn't inspired you to pick up all 420 pages of it, there are other options! Whether you love Moby-Dick and want more, or are looking for a a way to work your way into it, here are some reading suggestions from the library catalog:

Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing For Every Page by Matt Kish

Moby Dick by Herman Melville; adapted by Will Eisner [YA]

Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick

Moby-Dick, or, The Whale by Herman Melville, presented by Jan Needle [YA; an abridgement with illustrations]

Railsea by China Miéville [Children's]

Ahab's Wife, or, The Star-Gazer by Sena Jeter Naslund

The Graphic Canon: Volume 2 - From "Kubla Khan" to the Brontë Sisters to The Picture of Dorian Gray edited by Russ Kick

Leviathan [DVD]
Set aboard a hulking fishing vessel as it navigates the treacherous waves off the New England coast-the very waters that once inspired Moby Dick, the film captures the harsh, unforgiving world of the fishermen in starkly haunting, yet beautiful detail. 

You can also find Melville's novel in Audiobook and eAudio formats.


Moby Dick Big Read
The Moby-Dick Big Read: an online version of Melville’s magisterial tome - each of its 135 chapters read out aloud, by a mixture of the celebrated and the unknown, to be broadcast online in a sequence of 135 downloads, publicly and freely accessible.

Moby-Dick Marathon 
Annual 25-hour, non-stop reading of the novel.

"The Picnic That Turned Moby-Dick Into a Masterpiece" [WGBH]

How to Read a Hard Book []

Classic Literature Turned Into Comic Books [Short List]

"Whaling Ship Crew List Shows Melville Embarking on a Journey That Inspired Moby-Dick" [Slate]

"The Harrowing True Story that Inspired Moby-Dick Gets the Ron Howard Treatment" [Slate]

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