I have a bucket list of books to read, and Moby Dick is no longer on it. Sadly, it’s not because I had the good sense to realize ahead of time it wouldn’t do anything to enrich life, but rather, it’s off the list because I read it. I read it from cover to painful-cover. I read every single blathering word about the internal structure of whales and how a whaling boat operates and what parts of whales are used for what purposes.
The bucket list of books is an ever-changing list that’s probably not, technically, a list, since it’s not written down anywhere. These are books that I’d like to read in my lifetime because I think they will enrich it in some way. Maybe they will offer insight, maybe they will be inspiring, or maybe they will tell me about a place or time in the world that I will never be able to experience. Sometimes books make the list because I think they might expand my vocabulary, teach me something about writing or storytelling, or simply help me understand references that make their way into pop culture or are part of a common experience.
Moby Dick made its way onto my list because it made its way onto so many other people’s lists over the years. It’s on every best novels list, no matter what the source. I also saw it on many authors’ lists of best novels. I even saw it on Bruce Springsteen’s list of favorite novels!
In October of 2014, Springsteen was asked about his reading habits for the article, “Bruce Springsteen: By the Book.” When asked what books were on his nightstand, Springsteen replied, “I just finished “Moby-Dick,” which scared me off for a long time due to the hype of its difficulty.”
I completely related to the sentiment. I, too, had been scared off by Moby Dick. I’d heard that the descriptions of whales and whaling operations were cumbersome. Springsteen even noted this in the article by saying, “Warning: You will learn more about whales than you have ever wished to know.” He went on to say that he found the book rewarding and not too difficult, however, describing it as “a beautiful boy’s adventure story.”
I’m not a huge Springsteen fan, but I have a lot of respect for his abilities as a songwriter, and I was drawn in by his description of Moby Dick. It was definitely a factor in adding the book to my reading list.
Another factor was seeing “Chapter Names in Moby Dick” appear as a category on Jeopardy. I don’t have the nerve to go on Jeopardy, and I doubt I would even qualify. If I did qualify, I would be the contestant who never got the hang out of working the buzzer. None of this keeps me from feeling like there are certain categories of knowledge I’m deficient in and should be brushing up on—“just in case.”
When I began reading the book, I was pleasantly surprised how readable it was. The writing was beautiful, and the story of Ishmael’s initial meeting with Queequeg, was interesting. I wanted to keep reading to see how this story would end. After about 100 pages in, the story took a back seat to lengthy descriptions.
It’s been two weeks now since I finished reading Moby Dick, and I honestly had to struggle to remember exactly how the story did end. I was so anxious to get the book over with, that I raced through passages, and in the final stages of the story, I was exhausted by the book, and I didn’t care how it ended. Somewhere after that wonderful beginning, the book tuned into what felt like a lengthy marine biology lesson from the most boring professor employed by the most pretentious university in the world.
I had some clues while I was reading it, that not many everyday-people share Springsteen’s view of the book. Anybody who spotted me reading the book would do an eye roll and walk away. I asked several friends if they’d read it, and they responded in ways such as, “I think I had to read it in school,” or “No, I heard it’s horrible.” I wasn’t getting a lot of passionate Pride-and-Prejudice-esque responses about how it changed lives or was read repeatedly just for the sheer joy of it.
I tackled A Tale of Two Cities earlier in the year and really enjoyed it. I’ve read both Anna Karenina and War and Peace. They were both hard books (mostly because of how similar all the Russian names were), but rewarding. The only reward I received from Moby Dick was being able to cross it off the bucket reading list.
My next dilemma is Marcel Proust. One reader whose opinion I respect said the verbose descriptions of French pastry are interminable. Are Proust’s madeleines the equivalent of Melville’s whaling operations? I won’t know for sure until I read it for myself.