This novel was on the syllabus of the 19th century literature course I studied when I was a second year university student, back in 1977. About half way through, I got bored. Then I fell ill and I didn’t finish reading it. Notwithstanding the fact that I hadn’t read the entire novel, I managed to write a paper about it and pass the exam thanks to very detailed lecture notes borrowed from a friend. After that, Moby Dick receded into my past and I had no intention of revisiting it.
Years later, my family was very close to a young man – a writer – whose favourite novel was Moby Dick. He and I had lots of interesting literary discussions, but as I had failed to finish the novel and was not interested in going back to it, I couldn’t debate his thesis that Moby Dick was the best and most important novel ever written. Later again, this young man died in tragic circumstances and his beloved copy of the novel was buried with him.
Until four months ago, my response to Moby Dick revolved around these two encounters with the novel: my own failure to finish reading it and my memories of a person to whom it meant everything. It felt like something incomplete but nevertheless significant in my life.
Then along came The Moby Dick Big Read and I decided it was time to finish the unfinished and see if I could discover what had made an intelligent and sensitive young man so passionate about this particular literary work. Along with countless others around the world – and with Goodreads friends Hayes, Laura and Tracey as well as others in the Moby Dick Big Read group moderated by Vikk – I have listened to Moby Dick as a series of podcasts of one chapter a day, with each chapter read by a different narrator.
As I listened to the novel over the past four months, I discovered a number of things. One is that there is more humour in the work than I either remembered or expected. Another is that Melville wrote beautiful prose and created intensely memorable characters. Yet another is that the novel is a bit like life: sometimes there’s high drama and hustle and bustle, but there are lots of fairly dull bits in between. Although I occasionally wished that Captain Ahab and the crew of the Pequod would just hurry up and find the whale, I still enjoyed the journey I went on waiting for that moment to arrive. At least, I mostly enjoyed it. I liked Melville’s lessons in cetology quite a lot, but I can’t deny that at other times I lost focus, drifted off, and yes, became bored. Occasionally it was like my 1977 experience all over again.
Listening to Moby Dick read by different narrators was a mixed blessing. Some of the narrators were outstanding. For me, the chapters read by Tilda Swinton, Simon Callow, Stephen Fry, Fiona Shaw, Benedict Cumberbatch and Roger Allam were real highlights, reflecting my preference for audiobooks narrated by professional actors. However, there were non-actor narrators who were also excellent, including David Cameron (the British Prime Minister) and newsreader James Naughtie, as well as others whose names don’t come immediately to mind. Some narrators were significantly less impressive and a small handful were - not to mince words - rubbish. Overall, I think I may have enjoyed the experience more if I’d listened to the novel being read by one very good narrator rather than by such a mixed bunch. On the other hand, that would have taken something away from the experience that the creators of the Moby Dick Big Read wanted to achieve.
So, how do I rate this novel? I enjoyed the experience of participating in such a literary event, even if there were times when listening to a chapter felt like a chore. I understand why a reader would be so passionate about the novel that his family would bury it with him when he died. I can appreciate the significance of Melville’s achievement. However, it hasn’t become one of my favourite books and I doubt that I’ll read it again. That said, I’ll remember the writing and the characters and I’ll reflect on the themes for some time to come. All of this makes it worth three stars for how I feel about the novel and an extra star for the Moby Dick Big Read experience.