Moby Dick Readalong – Chapters 1-28

Whoa, there, guys. If someone had mentioned that Moby Dick was both hilarious, insightful, blasphemous, and beautiful, I would have picked this book up a lot sooner. All I’d really heard about Ishmael was that he was a long-winded, confusing narrator, but the truth is, I absolutely adore him.

I think a book like Moby Dick comes with a lot of preconceptions and I spent most of Chapters 1-10 unpacking them. Here’s a list of everything I knew to be true about Moby Dick:

1) Matilda read it at the end of Matilda, the movie.

2) The first line is “Call me Ishmael,” because that’s the line Matilda read.

3) It’s an allegory.

4) There was someone named Captain Ahab in it.

5) As ridiculous as this is, I may or may not have thought Ishmael and Captain Ahab were the same person. You know, he was just getting friendly at the beginning of the book. “Oh, don’t bother with that silly Captain business. Please, call me Ishmael.” Why thanks, Captain Ishmael Ahab, I will!

Here is what I now know to be true of Moby Dick:

1) Matilda read it at the end of Matilda, the movie.

2) The first line is not “Call me Ishmael,” it’s “The pale Usher– threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. Was he ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.”

3) The religious metaphors and references are fascinating.

4) There is someone named Captain Ahab in it and he is Mysterious with a capital M.

5) Ishmael and Captain Ahab are most certainly not the same person.

All joking aside, I was not prepared for how much I would truly enjoy Moby Dick. It’s a fascinating novel so far, that has never felt too wordy, difficult or boring. Ishmael is a hilarious narrator, but Moby Dick is surprisingly beautiful. Take this passage for example:

Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to  sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all. (3)

I found myself with highlighter ready, marking up every page with funny, beautiful or possibly important lines. I remembered why people carry a pen with them when they read in the first place. I know I keep repeating it, but I just had no idea. What other classics are sitting on my shelves that I haven’t picked up because I think they’ll be boring? If nothing else, the classics I have read recently have shown me that I love reading them. So why don’t I read more classics?

Anyway, back to Moby Dick. I am a fan of short chapters! And really, who isn’t? Is Moby Dick the first postmodern novel? I don’t know about that. Plot-wise, Herman Melville does a lot of interesting things, but I’m not sure the right word is postmodern. It’s difficult to really form any opinions after only 120 pages. There is still so much to come! They only just got on the boat after all.

I’m endlessly fascinated by the narrator’s religious opinions. I know that religion and religious imagery will play a large part in Moby Dick, but I don’t know how, exactly yet. I’ve managed to stay quite ignorant of the classics I haven’t read. I hate spoilers. I know some people don’t mind them, but I like to come into a story with nothing but myself. I prefer having no expectations. I mean, you saw the kind of expectations I had going into Moby Dick: they were almost all wrong. Anyway, I don’t know how Moby Dick is going to play out, though I imagine there’s a whale in there somewhere. All I do know is right now, our friend Ishmael says some very interesting things about religion. This is one of the most interesting quotes:

“All our arguing with [Queequeg] would not avail; let him be, I say: and Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending” (79).

The relationship between Queequeg and Ishmael was also very interesting to me. It just never played out exactly like I expected it to. While there are definitely aspects of his portrayal that border on caricature, his description as a cannibal and a savage for one, he is also a very interesting character and Ishmael shows him genuine respect. Their relationship often leads Ishmael to discuss religion, and I fear that this may be his primary importance. I wonder if he’ll still be as important a character once Captain Ahab and the great white whale take over.

Moby Dick continues to be a very enjoyable read and it is never quite what I expected. I’m excited to keep reading and I’ll see you back here for a discussion of chapters 29-55 on January 19!

This Moby Dick readalong is being hosted by The Blue Bookcase. I will be updating this page with links to fellow participants blog posts this evening. 

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23 thoughts on “Moby Dick Readalong – Chapters 1-28

  1. This has inspired me to give Moby Dick a try; it’s on the list of classics that I’ve just not made it around to and I must change that. Great review.

  2. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the first section too. Unfortunately it does get a bit tricker to read as it progresses, but there is still a lot to enjoy. I look forward to following your progress.

  3. I am LOVING what I’ve read so far! You picked some great quotes. One of my favorites so far is: “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

    Also, it’s awesome to hear you contemplating classics, and whether or not there might be others this good. (There are!!) You sound like me, when I started my classics project. I had the same sort of wonder when I read Jane Eyre. 😉

  4. Love this post! I had many of the same preconceptions you had, but I, too, find myself surprised with how readable it is and how many passages I’m marking up. Look forward to discussing the next section with you!

  5. It sounds like our reading experience was very similar. I keep coming across comments suggesting things get a little more difficult as the novel goes on, but maybe I’ll be surprised again. I also like to know as little as possible before reading a book. All I knew about this one was that there’s an Ishmael, an Ahab, and a Moby-Dick. Everything else I’ll just have to discover as I read! Lots of underlining going on here, too.

    1. Shelley, it is a little bit more difficult, I’ve found. But I’m still enjoying it (even though I’m way behind!) And there’s definitely a lot of underlining going on 🙂

  6. Huh. Apparently I need to give Moby Dick another chance. I read half of it about 10 years ago and just couldn’t take it. Maybe I’m old enough to appreciate it now?

    1. I’m in a section right now that’s pretty boring, so I can see how people might give it up. I might have if it weren’t for this readalong. I’ll let you know how it’s going in my next post.

  7. It’s true the old classics take work to read, but they’re definitely worth it. I especially love 19th century British authors, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen. Get into one of those books, persevere just a little, and you’ll find a way to take a temporary hiatus from the craziness of modern life!

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