I finally did it. I made it through all 845 pages (free Google ebook version), all 135 exhausting chapters of Herman Melville’s bizarre and extraordinary book. An English teacher once told me (I think he was quoting someone famous) that a fiction book changes you, but it’s not possible to say exactly how you are changed. In fact, that might be the best definition of a good fiction book I’ve ever heard. And Moby-Dick is definitely a good book.
In these next few blog entries, I’ll try to discover how (if?) Moby-Dick has changed me.
Why title this first entry “An Atheist Reads Moby-Dick”? I struggled with that choice. I certainly don’t believe that my atheism defines me. I might have written “A Science Teacher Reads Moby-Dick” or “An Ocean Lover Reads Moby-Dick” or even “A Husband and Father Reads Moby-Dick” because all those parts of me played into my reading, too. But the overwhelming impression that struck me again and again as I read is that this book reveals within its several pages the great gulf that separates me from the characters and events of Moby-Dick, a gulf that has at its heart the dichotomy between the supernatural and the secular. I think Melville would be baffled by what I’m about to write, because separating oneself so entirely from the supernatural would be for him like removing a body part (yes, I realize what I’ve just said. Wait and see.)
None of us is a blank slate; we all bring ourselves into any new experience. I read Moby-Dick through the filter of the two life-altering non-fiction books I read and studied over the past two years, The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch and The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. Both these books changed me so profoundly that I’m still sorting through the wreckage – in fact, reading and then writing about Moby-Dick is part of that effort.
I’ll also consider Moby-Dick through the filter of what remains my favorite fiction book, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. With apologies to Melville fans, while Moby-Dick is undoubtedly an epic tale, it’s still lovely to live on a raft. Besides, as you’ll see by and by, Melville is fond of the Shakespearean finale, and like Huck, I don’t put no stock in dead people.
Finally, speaking of Shakespearean endings, I’ll consider Moby-Dick in the light (or rather the darkness) of my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth. The parallels between these two stories is striking, and speaks, I think, to what Melville was trying to tell us through the character of Ahab.
The time has come. Let the great flood-gates of the wonder world swing open. Let the adventure begin . . .