Among Moby-Dick’s kabillions of pages of literary fallout, some of the most charming and passionate are essays by fans trying to convince other people to read the book. Saved from obscurity in the 1920s by a surge of belated good press, Herman Melville’s dense, challenging 1851 novel continues to turn readers into evangelists on its behalf. Christopher Routledge of Liverpool’s The Reader calls this tale of whaling and obsession “the ideal ‘desert island book'”; novelist Rebecca Stott says it’s her inspiration as a writer, a work of “mad genius” that she reaches for “whenever my nerve fails me.”
The white whale’s latest endorsement comes as a chapter in Jack Murnighan’s new book, Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits (Three Rivers Press, 2009). Admitting that Melville’s tome “is often thought of as one of the most boring, unﬁnishable books you can imagine,” the author reveals a secret: Moby-Dick “is funny, I mean really funny, as in one of the funniest books of all time.” The chapter—which Murnighan and his publisher have graciously allowed me to post in full on Power Moby-Dick—goes on to discuss that humor; reveal the book’s “best” line; and even (horreurs!) tell readers which chapters it’s OK to skip. (But don’t skip any.)
Cynics might wonder: if the book is so good, why does it need such a loud and fervid cheering section? Why not let people just read it—or not? The reason is that, like many of life’s most exquisite pleasures, Moby-Dick doesn’t always reward a casual first try. Fans don’t want the book’s bad reputation to make readers bail too early. After all, the more people they can convince to read the book, the more people there’ll be with whom to ponder its mysteries.
But fair enough. If you are a person who just wants to read the book (or not), you might consider signing up for “Read Moby-Dick This Summer.” The organizer, James Bickers, is sending out the whole book in emailed installments, starting July 1 and running through September 30—at which point, you can begin drafting your own “you gotta read this” essay.
Margaret Guroff is editor and publisher of Power Moby-Dick.
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