One of my favorite places to lurk is Reddit.
Yes, I know it gets a lot of flack. But, there’s actually a lot of great stuff in there too.
What I love about Reddit is you can find a sub on basically any topic. Unsurprisingly, I spend my time there in book related groups soaking it all up.
Most of the time, I’m in there to scope out good recommendations, or for something like A Song of Ice and Fire, to check out thoughts or theories.
Occasionally, though, I stumble upon a true gem: the knock down drag out book fight.
For a book nerd, these give me life.
So, I was doing my normal scroll through my Reddit home page not too long ago when I came across this:
Note at the time of this writing (my first draft) the post now has over 1300 comments.
When I saw that my eyes lit up.
By that time, these nerds had been arguing for over 9 hours.
The title of the post was what really drew me in.
How did you not know that was what the book is about?
Before I get to that, a quick bit of information on Moby Dick.
A Primer on Using Powers of Observation to Understand Moby Dick
Now, I’m a New Englander and thus am quite aware of our past maritime glory. The area where my dad is from was once one of the richest ports in the world because of the money made from whaling.
But in this case, I’ll gladly excuse myself from this exercise.
Let’s pretend you’ve never heard of this book.
Here’s the cover.
Looking at this, I’ve annotated a couple of important points visually.
First, you might notice that large gray whale jumping out of the water.
Those men sitting in that small boat with a bunch of spears (harpoons) are whalers. Those are the guys that want to kill the whale and drag it back to their much bigger ship.
In those days, the whales would be used for things like:
- Oil from the blubber for greasing machines, lamps, soaps, paint, varnish
- Oil from the head of sperm whales (that whale in the cover picture) called spermaceti used to make candles and lubricant
- Whalebone for corsets (yuck), toys, piano keys, hair accessories and jewelry, chess pieces, artwork
Finally, context clues are important.
Unless you deeply follow the activities of Whale Wars on the Discovery Channel, you likely know that people aren’t floating around today on tiny boats killing whales with harpoons to make corsets.
And, they probably haven’t done that for a while.
In fact, you can see in the above chart from The Atlantic, that when Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick (also known as The White Whale) in 1851, the US was at the height of its whaling output.
Only 10 years later, the numbers were already in decline. And now, with few exceptions, they are basically non-existent in the US.
So, putting all that information together it kinda feels like Moby Dick is probably about 19th century whaling, no?
Here is a very good blurb on the back of a copy (ironically the abridged version!):
A masterpiece of storytelling, this epic saga pits Ahab, a brooding and fantastical sea captain, against the great white whale that crippled him. In telling the tale of Ahab’s passion for revenge and the fateful voyage that ensued, Melville produced far more than the narrative of a hair-raising journey; Moby-Dick is a tale for the ages that sounds the deepest depths of the human soul.
Interspersed with graphic sketches of life aboard a whaling vessel, and a wealth of information on whales and 19th-century whaling, Melville’s greatest work presents an imaginative and thrilling picture of life at sea, as well as a portrait of heroic determination. The author’s keen powers of observation and firsthand knowledge of shipboard life (he served aboard a whaler himself) were key ingredients in crafting a maritime story that dramatically examines the conflict between man and nature.
I’ve highlighted the parts that stand out.
- graphic sketches of life aboard a whaling vessel
- wealth of information on whales and 19th century whaling
- firsthand knowledge of shipboard life
Now, remember, the vast book blurb lobby writes the back of these books to get you to actually want to buy them.
A ‘wealth of information on whales and 19th century whaling’ is book blurb lobbyists speak for ‘there’s like 200 pages about blubber specifically as well as a shocking amount of detail expressly on whales dicks in this book, so you DO NOT WANT TO MISS IT.’
I rest my case.
Now, moving on to the important things at hand.
Why Actually, You Know, Reading the Book Matters
I don’t think I’m alone in thinking this, she mused quietly and respectfully to herself…
Yes, I get that the true point of reading is for general enjoyment.
Some people love to dig deeper into that, and others just want to sit back and be entertained.
It’s why we have the PBS Frontlines and the Real Housewives franchises of the world. Each serves a specific need, and quite often each can play to different parts of the same person.
However, I am an adult. At least according to the US Government.
So part of that beyond all the shitty things like paying bills and going to work means I get to read what I want.
So when I pick up a book to read it.
I READ IT.
(Unless it sucks like 50 pages in then I move on to the next because being an adult I also value my time. Anyway.)
Many in that Reddit thread felt the same way.
The above person is even more judgmental than I am, which as an aside is pretty awesome to see in real life. But they also hammer the point home in two sentences (the last two, the first two are just snark, which I loved).
If you don’t read the unabridged (only) Moby Dick, you haven’t read Moby Dick at all. You’ve ignored an essential component of the text.
Most of the people in the thread felt the same way.
But there were a few who popped in to say they saw no reason why anyone should ever read a full book when there are summaries available everywhere. And then they sauntered out of the thread and right back into their book summary reading lives…
Which made me feel a little
rageful disappointed I couldn’t further hulk smash their faces engage in civil conversation.
I was hoping this might a one-off thing, I had stumbled into a single book beef and it was time to move on.
Not so fast.
Literally, the same day, I came across a similar thread in the Reddit sub for A Song of Ice and Fire.
This one was a pretty good topic:
I’m the first to admit that I can miss a lot of stuff reading a book the first time through. And, with a series like this, there are so many little details, it’s really easy to have things fall off your radar.
So, I was curious to see what other people might have to say.
And then I got to this…
I have a tendency to skip description parts when I’m reading so I can read faster…
Call me crazy, but the fact that THE WALL IS MADE OF ICE is kind of like a MAJOR factor in the book that DRIVES THE STORY in the plots of many of the characters.
Listen I get it. Not everyone (not even me) reads and absorbs every single word on a page.
This happens to me all the time with audiobooks. I’ll be listening, then I don’t know I get distracted by a squirrel or something and suddenly I’ve blacked out for the last 10 minutes.
Here’s the difference, though. When I realize I’m doing that, I actually go back and re-read (or repeat on audio) the chapter.
And guess what happens?
More often than not, I realized I spaced out at what some could consider a pretty big plot point. One that would have sucked if I’d missed it.
I continued reading only to find a growing number of people who bravely admitted that they too, like the previous commenter, also skipped sections.
The good news is since we’re going to be waiting until the end of freaking time for the next book in this series to come out, many people have actually re-read the books at a slower pace.
Which means they’ve been able to go back through the sections they missed.
I, for one, am a fan of reading them now that I know (yes I know things won’t be exactly the same) what’s happened in the show. I can take my time and really think about the ‘quiet’ parts of the book where there’s no ‘action.’
And the same is true for so many books, especially the classics.
Someone once said that if you’re not reading the full book, you’re not absorbing it in the way the author intended. And the same is true with interpretations.
A summary or an abridged version relies on trusting someone else to tell you what they think is important. Your whole basis of the book then becomes couched in the thoughts and experiences of someone else.
That’s no good.
If you think you don’t have the time or stamina to read them (or read in general) I hear you but there are ways to work these things into your life.
If you’ve got time to watch long binges of Bravo TV any given night, you have time to dig into a book for 20 minutes a day.
My Final Plea
The point of those 1500 words was to clearly (and clearly not succinctly) illustrate that a bunch of crap about whaling is sort of baked in the cake when it comes to Moby Dick.
And, a lot of that stuff is actually what makes the book good.
Just like when I watch any of the Real Housewives series I know there will be weave snatching, drunken crying fits, and a husband with a wandering eye. I need to accept these things in order to get through it.
In fact, one might argue, they are essential components of the show that drives much of the plot.
For if you don’t understand the machinations behind the why your enjoyment level dramatically decreases.
I know this first hand.
Every time I start to explain to my sister why housewife x now hates housewife y, she stops me after two sentences and says, ‘forget it, I don’t want to know.’
But then, when reunion time comes around, she has no idea why everyone is running around like screaming banshees. While I could write a 50,000 word dissertation on the psychology of each of these ladies.
See what I’m getting at here?
Read the whole book, guys. Seriously.
If you’re halfway through and it’s boring and you want to skip massive chunks maybe it isn’t the book for you, even if everyone says it’s amazing. Or, try putting it down for a while and coming back to it later.
Reading shouldn’t be a slog, it should be fun.
I know I sound like a book snob in this post, which I am, but you’re likely missing all the good bits.
There’s no way you’d be able to miss a bunch of scattered episodes of a season of the Real Housewives and really figure out what was going on later.
So follow the same path when you’re reading.
Read what you like, but slow down and read the whole thing. I’ve learned this lesson, I hope I’ve shamed you into learning it too.
Don’t be uncool, man.