Revisiting the Classics
“Jensen, come on! He needed an editor.”
My friend, McNulty. Any time this particular book comes up in conversation, his comment is the same. The book is too long. Not enough happens to justify its length. The author needed an editor.
“You don’t get it! It’s not about the story.”
“No. He needed an editor.”
The book in question is Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.
I know, I know. So highbrow. Look at me with my fancy literature degrees. But honestly, it’s not as terrifying as its reputation might suggest. I come back to it again and again, and I swear it’s out of love.
Everyone knows the story. Ahab, a mad ship captain, vows revenge on Moby-Dick, the whale that took his leg. That’s it. Really. Aside from “Call me Ishmael” and some tender hand-holding, that’s the whole story. Sorry. Spoilers.
In a lot of ways, McNulty isn’t wrong. It’s a long book, and if you’re looking for an engaging and well-paced story of adventure on the high seas, you can more or less read the first hundred pages and the last 25. That’s where almost the whole “story,” as it were, happens. So what’s the deal with the intervening 400 pages, and why do I care enough to have this same argument over and over?
In short, it’s a poem. What the book lacks in story it makes up for with disarmingly beautiful meditations on the nature of greatness and the human condition. It’s not a story told by a sailor about his adventures at sea. Melville’s Ishmael is a dreamer with the soul of a poet, which is why even a much-maligned extended monologue on 19th-century whale biology becomes, at least for me, a reflection on a man’s infinitesimally small place in a world inhabited by creatures that could swallow him whole. What awe that kind of encounter must inspire! The true magic of Moby-Dick is that it can produce the same feeling in its readers, safe and warm at home though they may be.
Moby-Dick is a humbling 600-page prose poem about how small humans can seem in the grand scheme of the universe and yet how truly great and noble some people can be—and every line is a masterpiece. With apologies to McNulty, Melville didn’t need an editor; he needed a reader willing to bask in the book’s language and be content with knowing the ending from the first page. Thank God (for my sake, anyway) that, though the book was a commercial failure in its own time, it has become an enduring classic and staple of American literature.
If I had to choose my favorite lines to share, I would just end up typing the whole book. So in lieu of that, you can find a copy among my staff picks at the store.
See you there.