People Who Love Whales

"Sperm whale and Bottlenose whale" by Archibald Thorburn. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
“Sperm whale and Bottlenose whale” by Archibald Thorburn.

There are (at least) five kinds of people in this world:

  1. People who have not read Moby Dick and really can’t be bothered.
  2. People who intend to read Moby Dick one day.
  3. People who have read Moby Dick and thought that it was about whales.
  4. People who have read Moby Dick and thought that it was a masterpiece of American Romanticism, exploring themes of destructive obsession, deception and the elusiveness of accurate perception, violence, race relations (and homosexual miscegenation?), or some other abstract noun that lends the novel to an array of scholarly and/or psychoanalytic interpretations.
  5. People who have read Moby Dick and thought, “Holy shit! This is not just a book about whales!” but really, really loved reading the parts about whales anyway.

If you are not in the overwhelming majority of Americans who fall into that first category, you ought to read Kamila Shamsie’s essay in the latest NY Times Sunday Review: “Reading Antarctica: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Moby Dick.

Shamsie’s account of reading the great white whale of a book aboard an icebreaker bound for Antarctica throws me back to the time when I read Moby Dick: I was in my early twenties, and I was spending two hours a day commuting aboard the Caltrain between our small apartment in Mountain View and my job in San Francisco. Having just finished a couple of serious degrees in literature, I found myself in category 2, feeling a bit fed up with the preponderance of people in category 4. Meanwhile, I was working my way through a list of classics that I assumed all literate people had read, but which, somehow, nobody had required me to read to get my English degrees (bachelors or masters). I read these books to understand why people persisted in reading them, but I also felt free to cast them aside the moment I could see no reason why I should persist in reading them. There was one train conductor who teased me when he saw me pulling tomes like War and Peace from my purse, and once went so far as to beat me (playfully) over the head with a rolled up People magazine that another passenger had abandoned, “to knock some common sense” into me. In spite of the abuse, I persisted. This was the golden age of reading. I finished books that I had purchased aspirationally when I was in high school, and found myself unable to appreciate when I had first attempted to read them–in fifteen minute increments, by the light of a bedside lamp, after finishing my math homework. Moby Dick was precisely such a book. I couldn’t get into it at all when I was sixteen. But at twenty-three, it consumed me. I loved it–loved it!–when I discovered how much there was to be learned about whales, and how literature–literature!–could be about this. I was initiated into category 5.

“Why do people persist in claiming that Moby Dick is about Ahab’s obsession with the white whale?” Shamsie writes. “Certainly it is a book about obsession, but it is Melville who is obsessed, with the need to capture the visible in a net of words.” Here, she introduces what I see as one of the book’s principal pleasures. By rendering the life of the whaler and the whale alike in such visceral and relentless detail, Melville ensnares the reader as well.  (Admittedly, some readers feel trapped in these lengthy descriptive passages, while others, like me, are “hooked” in the positive sense.)

My delight in learning about whales may have foreshadowed the shift in my own writing and reading habits. As a writer, I have moved away from fiction, which constrains me to what I can imagine, to non-fiction, which offers possibilities in subject matter far vaster than the limits of my own speculative capacities. The world is full of more strange and interesting stuff than it would ever occur to me to invent. Like the stuff inside whales.

As a reader, I now consume fiction and nonfiction with equal enthusiasm, but I read fiction differently than I did when I was younger; instead of being most interested in the internal world of the novel itself, I am now just as concerned with what fictions reveal (subconsciously or consciously) about the storytellers. It affords me a different sort of pleasure–one more like the pleasure of reading good nonfiction. And yet, the very best books are those like Moby Dick: the ones that afford the pleasures of fiction and non-fiction simultaneously. Melville supplied my first intimation that literature could enlarge my knowledge, that is my factual understanding of the actual world, while taking me from the world I presently inhabited (there on the Caltrain) by telling me a story that invited empathetic contemplation of my fellow man, and myself. We have dark and twisted depths I could not have fathomed if I had not first learned about the intestines of a whale.