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Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Deputy production editor, Ben Isaacs has a whale of a time

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Week 4 and a bit

Moby-Dick saved my life. Sort of. Maybe.

There’s two things you need to know. The first is that I’ve barely read any more of this since my last entry a few weeks back. The second is that I had an accident that has left me with a broken shoulder and bruised ribs. I know, right? (See the injury:

I was knocked over by a cyclist and I suspect it might’ve been worse were it not for the mighty tome in my bag absorbing some of the impact. But now, because the book is heavy and my shoulder so messed up (I’ll be in a sling for a month) that carrying it to and from work is impractical.

But I can tell you this: I’m pretty bored of it. Although we’re finally at sea that just means facing a blizzard of archaic nautical terms and Quaker dialogue. There’s even a chapter that is a very dull guide to different whale species. Just like the sort of thing you read and hated in school.

I won’t give in though. That’s not what Ahab would do. And that dude’s only got one leg so I should count myself lucky.

  • Pages read: 209
  • Pages left: 475
  • Chapters read: 41
  • Chapters left: 94

Week 2

Friday 4 May

Moby-Dick is my white whale and I’m taking it down with my harpoon of perservence. Which turns out to be blunt.

A week has passed and I’ve only got through 108 pages. To put this in perspective, just before starting Moby-Dick, I read all 304 pages of Graham Johnson’s excellent Hack, a searing expose of my former employer The News Of The World, in just three days. My current tardiness is partly down to delays on the train preventing me from getting a seat, though. Please don’t judge me. For being slow or working at The News Of The World – you pick.

Moby-Dick starts badly. At least it does if you’re trying to power through it for fear of people thinking you’re too dim to finish it. Before you even get to page 1, you have to plough through 16 (16!) pages of ‘Extracts’ – simply excerpts from other texts (ranging from the Bible to an 1828 speech in the US senate) that mention whales in some way. It’s interminable, it really is.

But once the story started, I was transported to a cold and alien land. One that seemed even less hospitable than late-April/early-May London (torrential rain, election campaigners everywhere). Although protagonist Ishmael is yet to set sail, despite being a seventh of the way though the story, his experiences in New Bedford and now Nantucket (not the tourist-friendly delight I remember from my honeymoon) are atmospheric and intriguing.

The archaic language can make it hard going, but the humour is a pleasant surprise. I thought this was going to be very dry read, but even silly touches like a ship captain calling Ismael’s cannibal BFF Queequeg ‘Hedgehog’ ensure much of the dialogue zips along. I wouldn’t say I’m hooked (or harpooned, whatever) but I’m enjoying it. A trip to the in-laws awaits: they don’t have wi-fi so I may be half finished by this time next week. And if not, I still get to feel smug on public transport. "Yes, I'm reading Moby-Dick. You're reading something no one, not even the author, will remember in five years. I must be more intelligent and learned than you. I win."

  • Pages read: 108
  • Pages left: 576
  • Chapters read: 18
  • Chapters left: 117

Week 1

Friday 27 April

It’s hard to say which is bigger and more intimidating: Moby-Dick the book or Moby-Dick the whale. Because I’ve not started it yet, I’ll go with Herman Melville’s 1851 tome. I mean, how hard can it be catching a whale? They’re so big they must be easy to find and presumably impossible to miss with your harpoons. This Ahab chancer sounds like a lightweight. And I’ve even been on a ferry to beautiful limerick-magnet Nantucket (the island’s whaling history forms the spine of the story) so I’m literally in familiar waters. I hope.

Over Christmas I devoured Chad Harbach’s sublime The Art Of Fielding and this was when it dawned on me that my life was incomplete without taking on the famed white whale. Not only is it a pretty hefty book in its own right, it’s packed chock-full of references to Melville’s timeless classic that went over my head. I’ve done the groundwork: it’s now time to pack the waterproofs and get on board. The waters look choppy – wish me luck.


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