Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick – Book Review

From the moment I started reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s latest book, Why Read Moby-Dick?, I felt as if I had met Herman Melville’s biggest fan and he proceeded to whisper in my ear for one hundred-twenty-seven exciting and thought-provoking pages. There were fights with whales, comparisons to current and present political situations, analysis of Melvilles’s letters and contemplations of his relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne – who served as reluctant friend to Melville and unwitting mentor for Moby-Dick. The result? Philbrick doesn’t quite convince me to pick up what he calls a “dangerously digressive, sometimes bombastic novel”.

Philbrick’s screed works to get you to appreciate Moby-Dick and may even get you to wish you wanted to read Moby-Dick – that’s how I felt – but he fails to provide more than his opinions, albeit fascinating ones, on the meaning of the novel. This is a man who has written an award-winning book, In the Heart of the Sea, on the real shipwrecked Essex (one of the inspirations for Melville’s great work). By his own admission he is fascinated by the sea, and has always been. His approach to this book comes with a breadth of knowledge that few readers could hope to match. I was more enthralled with his ability to provide history and analysis for the text than I was in reading the actual text. I already know that I won’t get from it what he did, and I liked reading what he had to say, but never imagined that I would begin to respond in the same way.  The one piece of Philbrick’s advice I might follow is to read and savor a sentence or two from Moby-Dick. He’s not picky ya’ll, a sentence will do.

If you have ever read Moby-Dick, then I urge you to pick up this book. It’s short and offers fantastic insight that can only further enjoyment of the novel. If you are a big Melville fan, or like classics in general, then you may well need to pick this one up too – it illuminates two intriguing literary giants. Physically, Why Read Moby-Dick? is a gorgeous book -prettily bound in red with thick creamy scalloped pages- that makes a great gift. I love my history, literature and sneak peek into author’s lives, so I really enjoyed this one. I just didn’t want to read Moby-Dick. Recommended.

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  1. I think I could also appreciate this book, but not want to read Moby Dick after reading it. You give your reactions and analysis to this one beautifully, but like you, I can’t see anything making me want to tackle this monster!

  2. I have a hard time believing that ANYTHING could convince me to read Moby Dick! As much as I liked the Philbrick book I read, I think I’ll be skipping this one.

  3. Okay then, I’ll see if I could find a copy of this book in our bookstore.. I’ve already read Moby Dick, so I guess there’s no reason for me not to read this! Thank for the great review and description of the book!

  4. I’ve always been so intimidated at the thought of Moby Dick. This book is one that I won’t hesitate to read and dare I say that it might even make the thought of reading Moby Dick less scary for me?

  5. Nice review, Nicole! I love the cover of this book and from your description it looks quite wonderful. I haven’t read ‘Moby Dick’ but it is one of the books that I want to read sometime. Whenever I plan to read it, I will pick Philbrick’s book as a companion read. Thanks for this review.

  6. I really liked reading Moby Dick years ago, and I’m planning on rereading it again next year! Sounds like this is the perfect thing to get me in the mood for it again 🙂 And that other book he wrote about the Essex sounds interesting too.

  7. Funnily enough, Moby Dick is one the many books that I’m reading at the moment. I read The Art of Fielding a few months ago, and Chad Harbach made tons of references to Melville’s work, particularly Moby Dick. So I’ll definitely check this book out. Great review!