Charles Keefer's Blog

Moby Dick – a tale of slaughtered English

with 12 comments

Ah, my friend Scott Campbell, he tasks me.

While I was in Washington, D.C., talking of things with Scott, I admitted that I hadn’t read “Moby Dick.”

Scott immediately pulled out not one, but two quotes from the book used in “Star Trek: The Return of Kahn” – some say the best in the original series of movies.

I vowed, silently, to read the book on my return home. Having an iPad, it cost me nothing to acquire. “Moby Dick” is part of Project Gutenburg – a way cool thing having to do with works by authors so long dead that the publishing houses would be embarrassed to try to stiff you for an electronic copy. See:

And now, hist and jolly lolly, I have finished it.

I was thinking of doing this post as a parody, but decided against it. After slogging through 1,000 plus pages on the iPad, I figured that nobody would read a parody – the main reason being that everything I have written to this point would be included in one sentence.

This guy Melville really needed an editor. There are sentences that span an entire page – sentences that I would defy my high school home room teacher, and she was an English teacher, to diagram.

Here is the plot. This guy ships out on a whaling vessel where everyone who utters a word is quite mad. They speak in run-on sentences lasting hundreds of words, many of which are not in the iPad dictionary, and that, when you finish reading them, make absolutely no sense.

They sail half-way around the world in search of a killer sperm whale that, eventually, kills them.

You are told that whales can’t be overfished, that prehistoric whales were smaller, and that fate determines the course of our lives – and that a couple of Yankee traders would put a vessel under the command of a captain that they knew in advance should be charged with steering nothing more than a rubber room.

And when it is over, the bastard doesn’t even tell you whether the whale lived to fight the Japanese.

So, a thousand plus pages and two quotes?

No damned wonder I didn’t read it in high school.


Written by Charles Keefer

April 23, 2010 at 5:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

12 Responses

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  1. Faulkner and Melville were two authors I couldn’t bring myself to read, no matter how highly touted they were.

    I also agreed with someone who said Reader’s Digest Digest could condense all of Hemingway into one word, “Boom!”

    On the other hand, I was and remain a Mark Twain fan, if only because of The War Prayer.

    Here’s the prayer:

    Here are two video interpretations of it:


    April 23, 2010 at 6:34 pm

  2. ah, but had you been one of those “dame Yankees” you WOULD have been required to read it. The “south” is after all a more genteel place.


    April 24, 2010 at 7:12 pm

  3. Anyone else want to join my bookclub?

    Scott Campbell

    April 28, 2010 at 2:33 pm

  4. Did you realize that they made an opera out of Moby Dick. You might still be able to catch a performance.

    Carol Keefer

    May 3, 2010 at 8:49 am

  5. An opera? I assume it is made of whale song.

    charles Keefer

    May 3, 2010 at 10:19 pm

  6. I refuse to think that this is something we should be making people to read.

    Other than the incredibly complex sentence structure, what does it have to tell me?

    What it tells me is that you don’t put your people in danger unless you have to.

    The object is to accomplish your mission and bring everyone back safe.

    What this tells me is that they didn’t care about safe and they didn’t spend enough money to do it.

    This tells me that they were assholes.

    The two guys at the front for the book.

    This book isn’t about hate.

    It is about capitalism.

    It is about the bet that, if you send them out with a crazy captain in search of an unconquerable whale that, you might make money.

    They didn’t.

    So all captains are crazy in the whale trade.

    Sometimes you die.

    charles Keefer

    May 3, 2010 at 10:55 pm

  7. Hmmm … Well, I loved it! But it is a long book with a lot of side plots and running commentary, like Ishmael’s ironic look at Christianity as seen through Queequeeg the cannibal. There’s no way to deal with it all here.

    I do concede Chuck’s earlier point that there are long sections that are really just depictions of life on a whaling ship that don’t advance the plot much. But I liked those parts too.

    But to Chuck’s recent post — “What it tells me is that you don’t put your people in danger unless you have to. … “This book isn’t about hate. It is about capitalism.”

    Let’s consider that.

    Whaling was an incredibly dangerous business. Rare was the trip that came back with the entire crew unhurt. Yet the crew joins in Ahab’s search for revenge against a single whale for the price of only a single Spanish gold ounce($16)nailed to the mast that only a single crewmen can claim — and a prize Ahab later claims for himself anyway.

    “How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab?” asks the first mate Stubbs.

    But the crew pledge themselves to Ahab. They even sail away from a successful and profitable hunt, leaving many dead whales floating in the water to the sharks, to take off after Moby Dick as the book moves to its climax.

    This is not capitalism. This is fanaticism — an entire crew, ignoring their self interests, throw away their own dangerously-earned profits in pursuit of the goal of a charismatic madman. (I guess THAT never happens in real life).

    Starbuck, who knows this is blasphemous, in the end continues the hunt even after Ahab is dead. The gentle, pious Quaker who most feared God’s wrath in Ahab’s quest for revenge, was ultimately the one who led the crew of the Pequod to their deaths — defying his own God in an attempt to finish Ahab’s evil mission. Why?

    I still think it was a helluva good read. Oh! A little aside. Moby Dick is actually based on two true stories: “The Sinking of the Essex” and a supposedly real white whale named “Mocha Dick.”

    Scott Campbell

    May 4, 2010 at 3:57 pm

  8. Ooops! A correction! At the end, Starbuck was following Ahab — but Ahab was not dead yet. In fact, Starbuck dies first. Still, my point was that Starbuck went along when he knew no good would come of this.

    Scott Campbell

    May 4, 2010 at 5:21 pm

  9. Thanks for the considered reply, Scott.

    Obviously you are not alone in your love for this book. Diversity, as we are so often told, is a good thing.

    My friend Bruce, who never posts a comment here, had two sentences about Moby Dick when I last talked to him. “I read a couple of chapters. I threw it away.”

    I have to admit that I missed “Ishmael’s ironic look at Christianity as seen through Queequeeg the cannibal.” That may be because I own and have watched (several times) every episode of “Stargate SG-1.” In those 10 years of episodes, SG-1 stamped “false gods” on just about every religion mankind has come up with.

    Now that I think about it, I have to give Melville credit for doing that long, long before television. I also have to wonder whether Moby Dick is required or burned at high schools in places like Arizona and Texas.

    My point is that I read the book in the 21st Century and didn’t notice it. Had I read it in high school, when I was supposed to, because of the impenetrable verbiage, I wouldn’t have noticed it either unless a teacher brought it up. And at the time, the early ’60s in South Carolina, bringing that up in a classroom was probably a hanging offense.

    So, folks, I’m not saying don’t read Moby Dick. Go ahead and give it a shot like I did. While you are at it, send the URL to someone in Texas – maybe a former President whose reading list needs to be broadened.

    I’m just saying I didn’t like it. And thanks for your comments.

    charles Keefer

    May 11, 2010 at 7:31 am

  10. Methinks a long term at sea will make madmen of anyone. Ripe pickings for the drama queens of opera.
    And reading this, it occurs to me just why it’s the first sentence of the book that’s most oft quoted.
    Enjoyed the two disparate takes on the classic tome, however. I, too, managed to get through life without reading it – at least so far.
    Keefer, yYu do remember that, back in the day, authors were indeed paid by the word…

    (And – Hi, Scamp! My favorite maker of bread tartare.)

    Jan Norris

    May 12, 2010 at 7:52 am

  11. Hey Jan! This is off topic, but a while back Nick Madigan sent me a link to a website you were building for ex-Posties. If course, I lost that. If you’re still doing this, can you drop me a line at

    Scott Campbell

    May 12, 2010 at 4:13 pm

  12. Why the fuck are you not a history professor?

    I consider myself well read, but your shit is beyond me.

    Seems like everything I should have read, you did, and took notes.

    Mark Twain? You read everything he wrote, right.

    Jesus H. God. I just got through Frankenstein.

    And, may I remind you, Moby Dick.

    Yo. I read all of Sherlock Holmes.

    I’m getting ready to read Issac Newton in the original Latin. Niels Bohr in Danish.

    Why aren’t you teaching kids?

    You are teaching me and I’m past 60.



    August 26, 2010 at 11:13 pm

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