Killing the whale


I have just given up on Moby Dick.

moby dick

There, I said it. I feel better now that it’s out in the open.

Don’t get me wrong. I tried. I tried to read it more than 30 years ago as part of my degree into English Language and Literature. I gave it another go last year when I took the hulking paperback to bed with me for night after night. Then, when it made my wrist hurt holding it, I tried again on Kindle.

That’s one of the joys of the kindle. No-one can tell that you are reading Mummy-porn on the tube, and you can’t tell that the book you’re reading is really the size of a small sofa. Kindles turn every book into a conveniently shaped and anonymous private experience.

Moby Dick has hung round my neck like as a personal failure. It’s one of the greatest novels of all time. Allegedly. It is a masterpiece of imagery. Apparently. A tour de force of literary something or other. Indubitably.

And I must admit that I enjoyed the first few dozen pages. This is how we start:

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

That is damned fine writing. The prose is muscular and idiosyncratic. It appeals to the couch adventurer because it is showing us a very different world from the one we know.

Who amongst us hasn’t felt the need to knock people’s hats off? Although, to be fair, most of us wouldn’t feel the need to go to sea as an antidote.

The sentence “Call me Ishmael.” has always intrigued me. Why should I call him Ishmael? Isn’t that his name? Or is he giving us the streetwalker’s traditional come-on where the question “What’s your name?” is answered by “What would you like it to be?”

Call me Ishmael, big boy.

Then the problems started. Moby Dick is, let’s face it, incredibly sloooow. We spend page after page watching our hero get into bed with another man. And, no, this isn’t a Brokeback Mountain sort of deal, although there is an added frisson that if it were it would be a mixed relationship in skin colour if not in the orientation of the respective combatants’ wedding tackle.

Never mind taking ages to see a whale, it takes us one hell of a long time to get our feet wet. I felt like I was a child again in the back of the family car. “Are we nearly there yet?” and “who will be the first to see the sea?”

I found myself being unfaithful to the whale. Oh sure, I would trudge dutifully through a few pages each night. Okay, some nights. But during the day I would reach for something else. I had more than twenty one night stands with flighty novels whilst Moby Dick was the doughty dame that I came home to each night.

The breaking point came when I was reading Boris Johnson’s autobiography … oops, sorry, I meant his biography of Churchill which reads like a Boris autobiog. When he grows up, he wants to be Winston, that much is certain.

The thing we associate most with Winston Churchill is never giving up. Come on, we can all do the voice. Go down an octave or two, imagine chugging on a fat cigar and slow right down to crawling pace:

“The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength.

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;

we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

Admit it, you enjoyed that didn’t you? It’s right up there with “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” or “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom I can tell you I don’t have money, but what I do have are a very particular set of skills.”

It is a quality which is drummed into us. Winners never quit and quitters never win. Yee-hah! The motto of the Galaxy Quest crew was the tautological “Never give up, never surrender.” Rudyard Kipling, when he wasn’t baking exceedingly good cakes, practically made a career out of jingoistic holding-on:

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

So I plugged on, doggedly trudging through Moby Dick one page at a time. I will not be beaten by a book.

Then it hit me. We remember Churchill in his “not giving up” phase, like Picasso’s blue period. But we don’t remember all the times in his life when he did give up on something. He wasn’t afraid to change political parties or try a new career.

That’s when I asked myself the killer question. If I did succeed in reading Moby Dick, it would be with the last few hundred pages read with the literary equivalent of gritted teeth. Would my life be better if I read it?

That led to killer question number two. What would be the worst that would happen if I stopped reading it right now?

And the answer to both questions is “not a lot”.

We put ourselves under immense pressure and guilt. All the books we haven’t read, the places we haven’t been, the experiences we haven’t … ahem … experienced. Other people have read Moby Dick and enjoyed it, so there must be something with me if I can’t.

Nonsense. Piffle. Balderdash.

By all means give up on the unimportant things. Save all the Churchillian and Kiplingian macho hanging-on for the stuff that matters.

And in the grand scheme of things, Moby Dick doesn’t matter. I can spend my time better by reading books that I do enjoy, spending time with my family, building my business, finishing the sequel to “Love, Death and Tea”.

My name is Will Once and I have never finished Moby Dick. And I don’t feel the least bit guilty about it.


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