Nathaniel Philbrick’s new title asks a question: Why Read Moby-Dick? (New York: Viking Press; 2011; $25). Inside this tiny hardback, author Philbrick offers answers to that question on 131 numbered pages.
This isn’t Cliff’s Notes (Thank God!). It is both interesting and fun to read. Those who struggled through Moby-Dick but didn’t understand it will get some satisfaction here. Those who have read Moby-Dick and — like this writer — thought they had the whole nut of Melville’s epic may be surprised at some of the things they missed. Some few of the clueless millions who’ve never read Moby-Dick may be inspired by Philbrick to dive into Melville’s wild, deep, metaphysically didactic ocean and — like the rest of us — revel in adventure on the high seas while they — like Ahab — seek all there is to know about the lethal leviathan. I doubt that many will do so, but Philbrick urges readers onto just such a quest and I do wish him luck.
On the downside, I think Philbrick makes too much of some themes (The whaleship Pequod being analogous to the United States, for example) that may be present in the text and too little of themes (say, Transcendentalism) that, being more strongly present, merit more emphasis.
Even so, I’m willing to admit that Philbrick knows more about The Great White Whale than I do. He is more deeply read, both into and around Melville, than I am ever going to be. It’s fair to say that Philbrick’s little book makes enough points and raises enough questions about Moby-Dick to keep an undergraduate literature class in an uproar for one full semester, at least.
Solomon sez: Four stars for a good job and a fine read. Strongly recommended.