Slogging through Moby Dick

Originally published September 22, 2012.

It took me ten years and two tries, but I’ve finally done it. I have finally read Moby Dick. I don’t know why this was the one classic that I felt I could not miss, despite trying once and giving up after about 200 pages. Maybe it’s because I grew up on the Atlantic coast and as my mom says, “have salt water in my veins.” Or because I read Ahab’s Wife for book club and was intrigued enough to give the real deal a try. Or maybe it was the “Why Read Moby-Dick?” story I heard on NPR, or the quiet, impassioned discussion going on next to me at happy hour between two of my Barnes & Noble co-workers, one of whom was reading Moby Dick for the first time, the other who had written her honors thesis about it.

For whatever reason, I got a bee in my bonnet to read Moby Dick this summer. To decisively engage. To commit. And I have done it. Now, sipping a stiff drink in satisfaction and celebration, I feel like I’ve run a marathon. An eight week marathon of the mind – of dedication and of a stubborn commitment to a ridiculous endeavor. “Call me Ishmael” was a bang that made me jump, grinning, from the starting line. For 150 pages I was in it, and I was loving it. And then, as in any endurance race, the adrenaline and endorphins wore off as the start fell away behind me, and I realized how far away the finish was, and how maddeningly dull all that middle part was. For the next 350 pages, I suffered. I suffered through chapters on whale anatomy. I read five minutes each night before boring myself to sleep. I wondered, “Why I am doing this? I could be reading something engaging. Something easy or fun. Something not painful.” And I’d turn my light off and go to sleep.

But as I told my girlfriend, I was not going to pick up another book. I was not going to give up again. So I read magazines. Cleaned the house. Tried new cocktails. And read for five minutes at night before my eyes would go blurry with disinterest.

After 6 weeks of this, at about page 500, I hit the wall. For one thing, I never count pages.  Counting pages is like looking at the clock at work. If you’re counting pages, you’re reading the wrong book. So the fact that I was counting down the pages ’til I was done with this damn book was a major indicator that I was wasting precious hours of my life. I was skimming, for God’s sake. And I came really, really close to giving it up.

But out of stubbornness and spite, I pushed through. And about page 600, it started paying off. Moby Dick started getting good. Like, really good. After literally hundreds of pages of drudgery, of seemingly unnecessary tangents, of so much talk of the White Whale, and of Ahab’s madness, that I began to wonder if Moby Dick were even real, and if I were mad for my stupid single-mindedness for finishing this book, on page 692, I read this line:

There she blows! there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!

And I was covered in goose-bumps. Just writing that line gives me goose-bumps all over again. That line is part of the American collective consciousness. It is so well-known that everyone, and I mean everyone, recognizes it. And I was there. I earned that prize. Once I got there, I knew all of my hard work was worth it. I don’t know why, but getting there made me feel like I had accomplished something big. Along with Ahab, I was mad to finally find Moby Dick, and the search was finally over. All that hard work, all that suffering, all of that pursuit – it finally paid off. It’s Moby Dick! He is real! And he has finally made his magnificent appearance.

Maybe that’s why that line is so beloved – because everyone feels the same way when they get there. You are overcome with relief, this sense of “FINALLY! We’re at the point of it all!” And whether by accident or genius, Melville wove this masterpiece in such a way that by the time you get to that famed line, the story has become – dare I say it? – a page turner. After such an investment – those torturous filler chapters so seemingly pointless, the chasing of this elusive whale so maddening – I just could not put it down. I almost missed the kids’ bus because I couldn’t stop reading.

And when I turned the final page, and realized, “I have done it! I have read Moby Dick!” I was able to cross off a major “to-do” on my bucket list. I felt a peace in my soul. Ironically (or maybe not so ironically) the same peace Ahab might have felt when after losing a limb (and his mind) to Moby Dick, after a mad, pointless, hubris-filled chase of the white whale, he could die knowing he had finally faced his leviathan.