Reading a Great American Novel can be a daunting task. A great deal of canonized literature — while still historically and culturally meritorious — has offered diminishing returns in pure aesthetic pleasures as it ages. The stylistic innovations of the past can feel stodgy and old-fashioned to today's readers.
Which is to say, us young folks today just don't always dig the musty old tomes of our ancestors, what with their overwrought Biblical allegories and emotional histrionics (honestly, must you keep fainting?). And, let's face it, a great many of us these days have only encountered "the classics" under duress in high school English, which is generally not the environment best conducive to a pleasurable reading experience.
I am pleased to report, however, that Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Herman Melville's pre-Modernist nautical epic, has not much suffered the deleterious effects of aging, nor does it appear too démodé to the jaded youth who idolize stylists, like David Foster Wallace, of similarly knotty prose.
There's not much one can say about the novel, it seems, that hasn't already been said. Melville predated Modernism by a few decades and wrote this virtuoso, half-mad, fiction/non-fiction hybrid way ahead of its time. Unloved during Melville's own lifetime, Moby-Dick managed to worm its way into the canon via the Modernists, who probably felt they owed some debt to this then-forgotten novel, which seemed to predate all their best formalist tricks by quite some time.
The story is straightforward: Man hunts fish. Fish hunts man. The pleasure of the book — and the reason why abridged forms of the book are a waste of anyone's time — comes in the "extraneous" bits: the digressions on cetology, whaling history, a chapter on the multifaceted symbolism of the color white, and the sharp psychoanalysis of the book's many characters. This, not the story of the titular whale — although that's a rollicking good time, too — is the real heart of the book, providing some of the most pleasurable reading in the English language.
As someone who finds the physical experience of reading almost as crucial as the content, I was happy to compare two side-by-side editions of the book, one in traditional printed form and one digital ebook. The printed edition was the handsome Penguin paperback, while the ebook was a public domain scan via Google Books read on my Sony Reader Touch Edition.
I will make no secret of the fact that, in general, I vastly prefer the experience of reading a traditional book. I love the feel of paper, the weight of the book in my hands, the contours of the printed letterforms, and an attractive cover. The Penguin edition offers all these things: The paper is thick and a pleasant shade of off-white; the book — like its namesake — is suitably hefty; the body text is handsomely typeset in Jensen; and the book's cover — featuring one of Rockwell Kent's classic illustrations for the book — is quite attractive.
The ebook, on the other hand, is a bit of a mixed bag, though I blame that largely on Google Books' shoddy scanning process rather than the Reader itself. While the text is smooth and readable in the Sony Reader's default font (Dutch Roman), the thing is riddled with odd glyphs and typos. I imagine this has something to do with hiccups in Google's technical process of scanning printed text and converting it to a standard EPUB format, but it's rather distracting.
For example, the third chapter, properly titled "The Spouter-Inn" appears as "THE SPOUTEB-nry" in the text of the ebook. "Nantucket" and "New Bedford" are occasionally rendered as "Xantucket" and "Xew Bedford." These are only a small selection of the creative choices made by Google's scanning algorithms. Needless to say, this renders the text a notch or two below consistently readable. Certainly it wouldn't prevent one from making it through the book, but it makes things considerably less enjoyable.
There are pluses to tackling a book like Moby-Dick in ebook form, however, and the Sony Reader experience does have its advantages. A book like this is full of quotable passages well worth revisiting again and again and the Reader's annotation features make marking pages or specific passages a breeze. The light, portable design of the device also makes lugging the weighty book around the subway or to the café a bit more manageable, although you don't get to impress curious strangers peeking at your book cover.
The mere fact that Moby-Dick is available for free to anyone who wants it is nice. It would be nicer, however, if the EPUB file were a bit cleaner. In addition to the more egregious typographical errors, the text has consistently odd formatting, with awkwardly set indents and spaces where there ought not be spaces (like following leading quotation marks). Moby-Dick is a book that could benefit greatly from hypertext and the options for digital annotation, and I imagine an edition better designed for the ebook experience (and they do exist!) would be a worthwhile investment. But even a shoddy bootleg of Moby-Dick is better than no Moby-Dick, and I would advise anyone remotely interested in American literature to get their hands on this book, and anyone who begrudgingly read it under duress in high school to revisit it again under better circumstances.