Moby Dick – Part I: Somebody should make a story out of this

Having had my mental energy usurped by a recent upswing in the intensity of my day job, it seems the perfect time to reintroduce my critique of Moby Dick from my former web site. It is a two-parter; the first part is impressions of the first half of the book. The second part was written after finishing the novel.

Part I: Half way through Moby Dick

I found a free Kindle version of Moby Dick. Since I am a sucker for finding out what’s going on with the classics, this was a clear incentive to give it a try. I should make it plain that I am only half-way through at present.

Most people think Moby Dick is a long book, but it is actually three long books. The first is a whaling primer, complete with whale classifications, history, and even a couple of chapters on how whaling is depicted in the fine arts. The second book is a defense of the occupation against other mariners, and general society, who may be inclined to look down upon the whaling trade. The third, and smallest, book is a novel, generally touching upon the subject of whaling.

There may be an audience for each of these three books. Unfortunately, the books are all mixed up, hodgepodge, into one. At the beginning of each chapter, the reader takes a spoonful of whale-product pot luck without knowing into which of the three books he is delving.

Three books in one, what a bargain!

Three books in one, what a bargain!

It is common among pieces of 19th century literature to meander into unfortunate asides that interrupt the narrative. Consequently, I am willing to give some leeway on this point. But Melville takes the inch I give and turns it into a mile, educating me on many topics about which I would just as soon remain ignorant, if I could save an hour by doing so. He spent a chapter explaining what’s wrong with the color white.

The storytelling itself (when it can be unearthed) suffers from a major point-of-view problem that would brand any modern author an untutored novice. Moby Dick is narrated by Ishmael, one of the crew of the ship. It does not take long for Ishmael to flee his own skin and flit about as a fly on the wall in places where his body is not present. The narrator describes scenes that Ishmael is in no position to see. Heartened by this omnipotent superpower, the narrator jumps into the heads of Ahab and his three ship’s officers to give us a glimpse of their most intimate thoughts.

You may be asking yourself, “Why has this dolt kept reading, if he finds so many problems with this book?” The answer is that there is one truly bright spot I hope will blossom in the second half.

In the actual narrative portions, when the story is really being told from the first-person, the prose is rather engaging. Melville’s style can be quite charming, as it was for almost three chapters in a row, in between sessions of Whaling 101 class. I’m hoping the last half of the book contains more of this type storytelling and less instruction and thought-reading.

I will continue reading, hoping that Ishmael is satisfied I’m now trained to competently follow the story of a fictitious whaling expedition. If I can also satisfy him that I want a chronicler of events as he experiences them, rather than a mind reader who presents me with every character’s thoughts, we may just be able to get along until the end.

He was a good bear before Hollywood got to him

As a child, I never took interest in Winnie-the-Pooh. My only exposure to what seemed a hopeless band of anthropomorphic misfits was television. TV convinced me Pooh was merely a chubby ne’er-do-well with no sense or self-discipline, who would accidentally strangle himself if left to his own devices.

His friends were no more interesting. There was some kind of mule with chronic fatigue syndrome, whose pity parties wore thin. There was a pig in a sleeveless jumpsuit, and a boy who looked like he needed to eat some meat and potatoes.

I don’t remember all the characters because I never enjoyed the films. I began avoiding Winnie and his crew. I avoided them without a backward glance for about 40 years.

Then a thoughtful person gave my son a Winnie-the-Pooh storybook. I had never consider Pooh as literature because I’d been turned off by him as television. Having seen what Hollywood did to Tarzan and The Little Mermaid this isn’t surprising.

When my son asked me to read from his Winnie-the-Pooh treasury, I winced. I wanted to make up the story instead of reading it. I wanted to say, “Once upon a time there was this ridiculous bear who only wanted honey, and since he had no sense and he could not control his desires, he got his head stuck in a pot of honey and had to live with his head inside the pot for the rest of his pitiful life. The end. And let that be a lesson to you, young man.”

I did not say this; that would have been lazy parenting, and the boy’s mother was sitting within earshot. I did the honorable thing: I tried persuading the boy he would prefer Green Eggs and Ham. When that failed, I sighed and began reading.

To my surprise, the literary Winnie-the-Pooh is quite well done. This Milne fellow knew how to tell a story with charm. Winnie is not nearly so vacuous as in his films. He makes up witty little songs, and though he possesses less forethought than is to be hoped, he does spend some time on afterthought.

Humble Winnie

They were simple times, before all the glamor and glitz, but they were good times. (Image: E. H. Shepard)

Rabbit’s desire to keep his home free of unwanted visitors is relatable to any middle-aged man. The only thing that would make him more perfect is if he came to the door waving an 80-year-old shotgun he never owned shells for.

I remember Piglet to have been portrayed as cowardly on TV. TV didn’t uncover the real depth of Piglet. Piglet has a keen sense of discretion. He is willing to accompany Pooh in pursuit of a couple of potentially hostile Woozles, but when he and Pooh are outnumbered he reads the writing on the wall. Piglet knows how to count and when to cash out. Now, if only he would cash out of that 1920s bathing suit.

We haven’t met Eeyore yet. No doubt, he will turn out to be a grizzled veteran of the Boer War, suffering from a tail wound and in constant pain from a bullet lodged in his hip. What once seemed like incessant complaining will surely be words of wisdom from a hero of the siege of Kimberley.

Though we got off to a rocky start, I like Pooh now. I like the way his stories are written. There is a unique talent for storytelling in the books. I hope it doesn’t take my boys 40 years to appreciate that.

Discovering the magic of Story

I mentioned last December that I was reading A Christmas Carol to our six-year-old at bedtime. Until then, we’d been reading children’s books. I could knock off a children’s book in under five minutes, kiss him, tuck him in, and be back downstairs without missing too much action from whatever sporting event I was watching.

It was great for me as a sports fan, and it kept up the routine of a bedtime story, but there wasn’t much else to it. Meanwhile, the boy was progressing as a reader in his own right, but he viewed reading as a chore.

As I read him the original version of A Christmas Carol, I noticed he paid more attention, rather than just counting it as time spent with Daddy, and more importantly, a precious delay in bedtime.

Maybe he needed something more engaging than the average children’s book when not doing the hard work of reading himself. Maybe he didn’t enjoy reading because he’d never been hooked on the idea of Story. He’d never been bitten by the bug that makes a person need to know what happens next.

After Christmas, instead of going back to children’s books, we moved on to Grimm’s Fairy Tales. As with Dickens, we stayed away from watered-down versions. We went full-strength, with all its violence and villainy. If you think this is too much ugliness for an innocent first-grader, just listen to a few of them have a conversation or look at what they’re watching on TV.

Admittedly, the lessons of Grimm’s are sometimes questionable. In the story about the shoemaker’s elves, the elves do wonderful favors for the shoemaker, right up until the shoemaker shows his gratitude by leaving them presents. His presents motivate the elves to abandon him, leaving the impression he would have been better off as an ingrate.

But these iffy morals lead to questions. They let us talk about the story, which the children’s books seldom did. They make us think.

I bought a kids’ version of Grimm’s for him to read to me. For a while, reading it was something he wanted to be rewarded for. The other day, he told me he’d read ahead, on his own – something he’s never done before. He’s started reading to me at bedtime.

Grimm's for all ages.

Nighttime reading for father and son.

Maybe he’s just naturally maturing, or maybe he’s discovering the magic of Story; maybe both.

I’m saving Hans Christian Andersen for when we’re done with Grimm’s. I want him to be a practiced listener when we get to Andersen. While many of the lessons of Grimm’s boil down to “Don’t be stupid” or “Watch your back,” Andersen’s morals are often less ambiguous, while at the same time, more complex. There are tales of self-sacrifice, which is not only a good thing to hear once in a while, it usually makes for an interesting story.


Give us a little magic to dream on, Mr. Andersen.

Hans Christian Andersen resides in my personal Pantheon of Storytellers. I’m not sure how comfortable he is there, wedged between Twain and Thurber, but that’s his problem. I’m hoping he can foster a love of Story in my son, and maybe even get him to like reading a little. You’ve got to admire anybody who’s still giving out gifts 140 years after his death.

I probably don’t care about your superfluous nipple

Do you care what color eyes the protagonist in a novel has? Is a character whose green eyes shine like emeralds more interesting than one whose blue eyes are mentioned in passing? What about the one whose eye color was never mentioned? What kind of loser must he be?

I don’t care what characters look like. When their physical traits are described, I quickly forget them and picture the character as if he had not been described at all. I paint him as an amorphous, generic human, without any detailed features.

In my mind, the character has no eye or hair color; he is a sort of human silhouette.

The only time I remembered a character’s hair color was when I read the movie tie-in edition of I am Legend, with a movie scene featuring Will Smith on the cover. Robert Neville, the character portrayed by Smith, is described as having blond hair. That would have made the movie more visually interesting.

movie tie-in

The Robert Neville in my mind didn’t look like Will Smith – not even a blond Will Smith.

older cover

He had the same eye color as this guy, but the hair color was more vague. He definitely didn’t have the huge left hand and/or extra-long left arm.

What the characters do is far more important to me than how they look, unless how they look is a big part of their character or influences their actions. If a character has a third eye, I’d like to know about it. But a third nipple is of less interest, unless a third nipple was clearly stated in the prophesies as the mark of the Chosen One, or three still-warm nipple rings were found at the scene of the murder.

I suppose physical appearance is more important in certain books. Romance novels might need to beef up their men and curve up their women to help sell the fantasy. Maybe that’s why I’ve never seen Pee Wee Herman on the cover of a romance novel.

Our reading preferences shape our writing. That’s why I can’t remember describing the physical traits of many main characters, except for that three-nippled messiah. My characters are like those Star Trek aliens who took whatever form Captain Kirk needed them to take to be able to relate to them. They can assume any appearance you want them to take.

What I must paint them with is a personality. I must make my characters have character, good or bad. I must make the central characters grow, or meaningfully not grow. This is the color on my brush.

Before one of the tens of people who have read my work becomes tempted to think me a liar, I should explain that I sometimes describe the physical traits of minor characters. I do this instead of giving them names. Names are superfluous for characters with walk-on parts (See: “Angry Man in Crowd” in your local movie credits). Referring to a bit player by a dominant physical characteristic makes them more noteworthy than throwing a temporary name label on them.

If I had to describe my central characters, they would all be medium build, medium height, with light brown hair and greenish, blueish, brownish eyes.

If any of characters show two or less dimensions, I’m truly sorry. That’s on me.

Is a main character’s physical appearance important to you as a reader? How about as a writer?