The Book Bag – A Whale of a Tale

header indigo book bag                                                                                                                                      “Call me Ishmael.” That’s probably the most famous first line of any American novel, the plainly stated, enigmatic beginning of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” Grey weather like that of recent days (now thankfully supplanted by sunshine) always brings to mind that soon-to-be voyager who carried a “damp, drizzly November” in his soul, and I am reminded again of this marvelous book.

Have you read Moby Dick? Many have not, some put off by its heft or its “classic” status or by ubiquitous bad press by those who struggled through a forced march through the book to complete a school assignment. I encourage you to reconsider the book–there are “damp, drizzly November” days to come. Here’s why.

I, too, was one of those students who in an American Transcendentalists seminar in college pushed through the book, ninety pages at a time. The professor knew that most of the students would have many other calls for their attention, so there was always a quiz on the assigned ninety pages. On and on I read, interested but not captivated. When we had read the final ninety pages and taken the final quiz, Dr. Walser commented that Melville wrote to his friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne (to whom the book is dedicated), “I have written a wicked book and feel spotless as a lamb.” Well! that was certainly a new perspective…and I reread the book in its entirety. The following year, Moby Dick became the focus of my master’s study, so to say that I am biased in regards to the book is justly stated.

If you have never read Moby Dick or read it sometime under academic stricture, I encourage you to consider reading it at this stage in your life, afforded the time and leisure and bolstered by experience and wisdom. It is at one level the story of a voyage on a commercial whaling vessel, replete with the details of life aboard the ship and technicalities of 19th century whaling. The action is played out by a host of interesting characters, both rough and philosophical. But it is the story of the megalomaniacal Captain Ahab that transcends the sea story and centers the deeper, philosophical novel. Bitter, questing, Promethean Ahab who pursues the elusive white whale and shakes his fist at it, all the while trying to come to terms with his own plight and to understand the nature of the white whale. Who or what IS Moby Dick?

As I write this, a copy of the excellent 2001 reissue of the novel, with Nathaniel Philbrick’s Foreword and fascinating preface and end notes, sits on the desk beside me. I have already picked it up and reread Chapter 42, an essay on “whiteness,” and have skipped to several of my favorite passages just for the sheer pleasure of rereading them. It’s not a book I would want to read again for the first time (enough with all of those quizzes!), but I would like the second reading again, when the story beneath the story was revealed and Ishmael, Ahab, Job, Rachel, and the white whale itself leapt from the pages in Melville’s wicked story. It may be time to dive in again.

Call me Ishmael…

-Submitted by Indigo Books



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