Book group gives Moby-Dick a go

Ah, Moby-Dick. Revered by many as the Great American Novel. Reviled by perhaps as many as unreadable. My book group was split down the middle about reading Herman Melville’s 1851 novel: Half of us were interested, the other half ambivalent at best.

At our discussion last week, one person said she gave up about halfway through. Another watched the 1998 three-part TV miniseries starring William Hurt. I confessed to reading a heavily illustrated version that was a third the length of an unabridged copy.

Did our discussion lag? Nope, it was lively. For those of us who gave it short shrift, Moby-Dick still proved discussable. Cursory knowledge can get you by on the obvious topic: Why is Ahab obsessed with the white whale, what does it represent to him?

Of course we slackers couldn’t talk about the intricacies of 19th-century whaling or analyze Melville’s writing style, so on those topics we listened to those who read all 600 pages. I was surprised by how engaging I found the discussion of a book I didn’t want to read. What I knew about Moby-Dick before we chose it — its lack of female characters and its graphic description of brutalities inflicted upon whales — had turned me off, but I went along because others were interested in it. At our meeting it was intriguing to listen to the people who saw a purpose in Melville’s meanderings and to those who enjoyed learning about the historical importance of the whaling industry.

The woman who read just the first half commented that she'd kept wondering what Melville was getting at and finally gave up, finding it obscure. Readers have similarly wondered for 168 years. Moby-Dick isn’t just an adventure tale, but what more it is is endlessly debatable. As a writer said in the New Yorker, “Moby-Dick can be whatever you want it to be.” He meant that to indicate greatness.

Although the enthusiasm of our book group members who finished the novel could motivate me to give the unabridged Moby-Dick a try, I’d still be bothered by the maleness and the animal cruelty. No book is must read. I don’t feel bad or guilty about not reading the Great American Novel, if indeed Moby-Dick is it. Even a prodigious reader like John Warner, the Tribune’s Sunday book columnist, said he hasn’t gotten past page 100 despite multiple tries. “I’m going to save you time by telling you which [classics] you can safely bypass, starting with Moby-Dick,” he wrote in a September 2017 column.

This was the first time in our book group’s nearly two decades that we chose a book in which some people weren’t interested. Moby-Dick was the third long classic that we’ve read in between our usual rotation. For our first 17 or so years, we followed the sensible rule of choosing novels of less than 350 pages. Then a couple of years ago, someone noted that our page limit meant we were missing out on some great classics.

We split our first long classic, Bleak House, into two parts and two discussions. The second, Les Misérables, took us seven months to finish in three parts (see a post about that). I was frustrated by the choppy reading and asked that our next long book be read whole. We allowed two months for Moby-Dick.

Cutting corners — whether with an abridgment, a movie, or CliffNotes or the like — ideally should be reserved for the rare book club selection you really don’t want to read. If you dislike most of your club’s choices, as a friend of mine does, you might ask yourself why you stay in. In her group members take turns choosing, foisting their taste on everyone else. We don’t have that problem in our group. Although we take turns, each of us proposes rather than dictates. The member whose turn is coming up offers the group three choices. Not every book has been loved by everyone, but a very high percentage have been liked.

With Moby-Dick out of the way, we’re back to our normal rotation, so it will be many months before we read the next long classic. One person has mentioned Ulysses. I hope she was joking. If not, it may be the second book in two decades that I don’t read intact.



In an interesting coincidence after we’d chosen to read Moby-Dick, Mary Schmich wrote a Chicago Tribune column about the Moby Dick Procrastinators Book Club, a group of people who for various reasons never finished the magnum opus. Its members have been reading six pages of Moby-Dick a day since April, aiming to finish by early September. Schmich will undoubtedly report on the results.



“Say a president was involved in some corrupt enterprise, you mean to tell me because he is the president of the United States, Congress would not have power to investigate? . . . There’s not a single Supreme Court or appellate case since 1880 that has found Congress overstepped its legislative authority by issuing a subpoena.”
— U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta, who is hearing a case that Trump brought seeking to block Congress from obtaining his financial records from the accounting firm Mazars USA

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