I was supposed to read "Moby Dick" for the first time in high school (weren't we all). Being a poor student back then, I did everything I could to avoid it and succeeded, though I wound up with pretty bad grades that term. The memory of those grades stayed with me down through the years, and this year it seemed time to finally make atonement by sitting down and reading it. My instincts in high school were right. Even for an A in the class, it wouldn't have been worth it.
"Moby Dick" is a dreadful bore from start to finish. Reading it was pure drudgery. Far from being the great American novel, it's not even a good one. Melville squanders his acknowledged gift for storytelling by digressing from his main story too many times to count. He starts out with Ishmael, Queequeg and their desire to go a-whaling. They sign on with the good ship Pequod out of Nantucket under the command of mad Captain Ahab on his obsessive quest to kill the great white whale. So far so good. But as soon as they are out of the harbor, Melville begins the first of many long digressions about whales and whaling. There are interminable pages on the history of whaling, the techniques of whaling, the tools of whaling, the customs of whaling, the traditions of whaling, how to skin a whale, whales in art, the physiognomy of whales, the terminology of whaling, the etymology of whaling, the nobility of the whale and whaler all with no sign of the characters in sight. This is great stuff if you find those topics interesting, but not if you came here looking for a deep, engaging, multi-layered novel about the complexities of human nature and its relationship with the world around it set in the context of a sea-going adventure.
Some might argue that many great books digress from their stories. The famous sewers of Paris from "Les Miserables", or John Galt's radio address from "Atlas Shrugged" for example, and they would have a good point. But unlike those masterful novels, of which up to a quarter consists of digressions, I would guess that only a third of "Moby Dick" focuses on the story. The vast digressions stretch out before the unknowing reader like the surface of the ocean before a thirsty shipwrecked sailor in the middle of a dead calm.
Having said that, when Melville sticks to the story, it is darned good. The characters are well drawn and memorable. Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask the mates, Tashtego and Queequeg the harpooners, and Ahab himself stand before the reader in all their salty glory. The ships on the sea chasing their prey, the deadly struggle of the whales, Ahab's quest; all of this is well told and it is clear that the author knew his subject well. The symbolism and the story of evil turning on and devouring itself is brilliant. Had he stuck with these elements and pursued them as devotedly as Ahab did Moby Dick, this might truly have been a great book. As it stands, it is a well written treatise on whaling in the 19th century, interspersed occasionally with a strange, sad short story about a particular, doomed expedition.
Read at your own risk. If, that is, you didn't have to do it already in high school.