I happened along the Moby Dick Big Read on twitter last October. Moby Dick is a huge chunkster, and certainly not a book I'm ever likely to pick up with the hope of completing reading it, but the audiobook seemed possible. I'd recently taken up listening to audiobooks whilst out walking the dogs. With all my post Steptember walking the dogs are getting quite a bit of exercise and it's nice to listen to something on the way. I don't do it all the time, sometimes I won't listen to anything, sometimes to walking music, and now podcasts have taken over my life... But I've found it a great way to get some more reading done. I've already listened to The Family Law and very much enjoyed the experience. So in no time at all I'd downloaded the podcast of the Moby Dick Big Read onto my phone and was stepping out.
I was really taken aback by how much I enjoyed the early chapters. It's all quite poetic and quite Dickensian really, which isn't surprising I guess as Moby Dick was published in 1851. Dickens had toured America in the 1840s and 1851 was in the midst of his hey day, between David Copperfield and Bleak House. Which is not to suggest that Herman Melville was influenced by Dickens particularly, just that they are contemporaneous, Victorian, and sound similarly descriptive to my modern ear.
Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.I was a bit familiar with the broad sweep of story as I think most people are- a mad sea captain chasing a white whale. I've tried to watch movie or TV versions over the years figuring that I'd never read the book, but usually I haven't made it through much of it. Not even that series with Patrick Stewart got me through it all. I was a bit surprised that Captain Ahab isn't even mentioned until Chapter 16, and even after that he only appears from time to time. I presume that he will come back closer to the end.
Is the whaling ship really the "true mother" of (white) Australia?
That great America on the other side of the sphere, Australia, was given to the enlightened world by the whaleman. After its first blunder-born discovery by a Dutchman, all other ships long shunned those shores as pestiferously barbarous; but the whale-ship touched there. The whale-ship is the true mother of that now mighty colony. Moreover, in the infancy of the first Australian settlement, the emigrants were several times saved from starvation by the benevolent biscuit of the whale-ship luckily dropping an anchor in their waters.Naturally I don't think so, but there is more whaling in the very early days of white settlement than I had realised. Colony rode to wealth on whale's back. Start of whaling. Later there is a full chapters of diversion into the classification and nomenclature of whales. (Chapter 32 Cetology)
After the most exciting action chapter yet (Chapter 54 The Town-Ho's Story, a rather complete diversion of an incident on another boat entirely, The Town-Ho, but which provides us with a fatal encounter with Moby Dick) comes a full 3 chapters of digression into the depiction of whales in art. I do love these Victorian era digressions, they provide extra information and background to the story, almost like the author is providing their own annotated version of their story- although they completely killed the enjoyment of Anna Karenina for me, and I never did manage to finish it.
Melville is dismissive of the depiction of whales in most cultures and antiquity (probably rightly so)
which functions to tell us of the dangers inherent in knowing what a whale actually looks like.
So there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan.Melville's highest praise is for the work of Ambroise Louis Garneray.
Of late years the Manilla rope has in the American fishery almost entirely superseded hemp as a material for whale-lines; for, though not so durable as hemp, it is stronger, and far more soft and elastic; and I will add (since there is an aesthetics in all things), is much more handsome and becoming to the boat, than hemp. Hemp is a dusky, dark fellow, a sort of Indian; but Manilla is as a golden-haired Circassian to behold.Although Melville did manage to make a whole chapter (60) on how the ropes used in the hunt (the whale line) was made, how it was coiled in barrels (a process which is particularly hazardous it seems).
During the several months of my listening so far I have made frequent use of the online Annotated Moby Dick. It is very handy for all the historic and biblical references that are rather obscure for me, and also some words that have slipped out of common usage, such as puissant.
How comes all this, if there be not something puissant in whaling?I did take some breaks from Moby Dick from time to time. I've been listening to podcasts and sometimes I would get hooked on a series and want to listen to it (Alone), or sometimes I just wanted to listen to more of Chat 10 Looks 3. Sometimes you need a break from things. A few of the readers had exciting whale chasing passages and it's not really relaxing walking the dogs with increasingly fervent yelling in your ears about maritime disasters and the relentless persecution of these behemoths of the deep.
The audio quality and production values of Moby Dick Big Read varies wildly. At times it was quite distracting. One chapter had a metronome quite audible in the background, others page turnings, others a hollowness. A few were fully produced with wave and seagull sound effects. The voice quality of the various readers also fluctuates considerably, but then you have unknown volunteer narrators mixing it with the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Stephen Fry, Simon Callow (who quite naturally delivers the sermon), and even David Cameron and Sir David Attenborough. It was rather inspired to have Rick Stein read Chapter 64, Stubb's Supper and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to read Chapter 65- The Whale as a Dish.
It seems only fitting that this post has become my longest. Moby Dick is one of the longest works that I've ever taken on. Although I have read half of Bleak House (twice), and am undertaking a year long read along of Les Misérables this year.
I've decided to close this post off here and as I am at the half way point that seems reasonable. I'm 67 chapters in (of 136), and still can't quite believe that I've made it this far.