Monday, December 12, 2011

A Book to Be Read, Not Decoded

I am going to do something stupid today. I am going to endorse a book I haven't read (save an extract or two in magazines and what Amazon is willing to reveal) that has a glowing review from that paragon of American literary mediocrity, the NY Times, is excorciated for it's historical inaccuracies in the usually fawning Amazon reviews, and is by an author whose background is best described as journalistic. The book is Nathaniel Philbrick's Why Read Moby Dick, and the reasons for my endorsement are two-fold: (1) he has a great table of contents, better than many books on Moby; and (2) from what I've read, he had fun reading the book.

First, the table of contents. He's got a whole chapter on "Pip"! The little castaway, idiotically babbling profundities, is among my favorite literary characters, a true merger of the Shakespearian fool and the American common man. And, he has chapters with great names like "Desperado Philosophy" - perfect! The book combines the outlaw, the desperate, the common and the academic, contempletive, philosophical. What a great chapter title - and Moby is full of great chapter titles. His final chapter is labeled "Neither Believer Nor Infidel", and I can think of no better four word summary argument for The Whale.

Then, the fun! Philbrick cites in his introduction, as his favorite moment in Moby Dick, one of Melville's little games, when in one chapter he specifically references the time at which he is writing the passage - in Philbrick's words, "pulling back the fictive curtain". The book is full of games, and I firmly believe Melville was enjoying himself writing them. All too often, the gamesmanship and the tongue-in-cheek gallows humor gets lost in the ponderousness of the weighty questions and the decoding of the web of references and symbols. This is a book to be read, not decoded.

Now, from what I can see or choose to otherwise divine, Philbrick has more, some of which may include questionable historical analysis. And I am sure there are many weaknesses to be discovered when reading. However, based on the little tastes I've had so far, I can say this is one of the few popular culture kind of books I'm actually looking forward to reading. I'll report back once I reach the back binding.

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