Moby Dick by Herman Melville is so iconic it’s hard to believe it was ever considered a failure. But it was, by many, when it was first published. Over 100 years later it is now routinely listed in the 100 greatest books ever written and often required reading in American Literature classes.
The book begins with Ishmael, the narrator, announcing he means to find and join a whaling vessel. He meets a harpooner from the South Pacific named Queequeg and together they obtain work on the Pequod, an intimidating whale ship in Nantucket.
They learn the Pequod has a mysterious captain, Ahab, who has a peg leg thanks to an encounter with a giant sperm whale, but they don’t yet meet him and aren’t put off by the warnings of experienced whalers. When they do finally meet him, they are inspired by his story and the gold prize he offers should they catch his nemesis Moby Dick.
The journey is long. While they sail, the reader is treated to page upon page of the technical details of sailing, whales and whaling and action filled pages of the hunt and capture of other whales. Despite predictions of doom and warnings of disaster, Captain Ahab pushes them on through a typhoon and drownings of sailors in his revenge-filled quest. Finally, in the Indian Ocean, they find the whale of their purpose, Moby Dick himself. The battle is intense, boats are destroyed, the Pequod sinks and Ahab and his men are drowned. Only Ishmael survives.
It’s a story you probably know even if you’ve never read the book or seen any of the movies. But the tome is very much worth reading, through its lengthy seafaring passages, through Ahab’s soliloquies, as if you are as driven by the narrative as Captain Ahab is by vengeance. Melville’s well written themes of self-destruction and anthropomorphism are worth the reading time. The classic novel’s place among the top 100 is well deserved and its early critics proven wrong.