A Smart Dude Reads Moby-Dick: Episode 1

Editor’s note: When Avidly learned that smart dude (and Avidly contributor) Jake Bartolone was reading Moby-Dick for the first time, we jumped at the chance to get an annotated account of the “first encounter with Moby-Dick” experience. We are approaching this scientifically! We are hoping that Jake will provide regular updates on his Melvillian encounter and that they will be useful to us as we prepare to teach Moby-Dick in our various classes. Also, it is an excuse to quote Moby-Dick at each other, so, score. Jake! Already you are boldly launched upon the deep; but soon you shall be lost in its unshored, harborless immensities. Wait, I am not sure you have read that far. 


I have never read Moby Dick.

I am, however, a voracious reader, primarily but not exclusively of science fiction and fantasy. I dig writing that tackles hard questions but doesn’t take itself too seriously (though I sometimes like stuff that takes itself way too seriously), beautiful prose, and anything post-apocalyptic. And I recently read Railsea, which is China Mieville (for my money, one of the best living writing) riffing on Moby Dick (or, I guess, on the more perplexingly punctuated Moby-Dick; or, the Whale). I thought: China Mieville likes it, so does Tilda Swinton, and even @NotTildaSwinton. Might as well try.

Here’s about all I knew about this Moby Dick/Moby-Dick book: there’s some dude named Ahab who’s all about the titular giant white whale, the narrator is named Ishmael (or at least wants us to call him that), and a whole lot of people have tried to read the book and given up. Oh, and the band Mastodon has a ton of really bombastic metal songs about it (when they’re not singing about the Elephant Man or laser-eyed Cyclops and shit), and people seem to like to drop references to it all the time.

I didn’t have high hopes, but I figured that slogging through the book would be worth the payoff in literary references and street cred. So now it’s the first book I’m reading on Kindle for iPhone (it’s free!), which I assume is pretty much what Melville had in mind.

I expected a dry, meandering extended metaphor with lots of old-timey words and phrases. Instead, it’s more like reading a hipster’s lifestyle blog, but a hilarious and awesome one. Ishmael is basically like, ‘sup losers, I’m way too restless to have a job so I just try cool shit every couple years and don’t care about being dirt poor because I’m all about the experiences, man. So now I’m going to go be a whaler because I heard some band (likely the mid-1800s version of The Decemberists) sing about it and it sounded so authentic, you know? And this is my blog where I’m going to tell you about all the cool shit that happens along the way in excruciating detail.

I’m 73 pages in (out of 549), according to the Kindle app. It is not hard, for me, to imagine Ishmael curating a book of artificially distressed woodcuts to be the Instagram-laden tumblr-equivalent companion piece to his whaler lifestyle blog.

I imagine Ishmael’s artfully-distressed woodcuts/instagram feed.

So far this is what’s happened. Ishmael has wandered from inn to inn and ended up getting stuck rooming with Queequeg, a totally scary idol-worshipping cannibal, but you guys, he’s just misunderstood! He’s actually totally chill! Now Ishmael is finding them a whaler to go out on since they’re besties (befriending an actual cannibal is worth a shitload of hipster points) and maybe even a little hipster-gay for each other?

I still have so many questions. First, what’s up with the fusty title? Why is there a hyphen in Moby-Dick (although not in the public domain version I have)? Why do I love titles that go THING: or, OTHER THING so much? Then, what with all of the foreshadowing (subtle and un-; LOOMINGS), and my vague understanding that there is much bloodshed and tragedy ahead (I mean, just go listen to Mastodon’s Blood and Thunder), I assume that shit is going to get real at some point. But how real? And how soon? And will Ishmael describe it all in the same chillaxed, let me mansplain you some cool historical context, fashion when it does? Regardless, I am following the shit out of this guy’s twitter feed (haha, like Ishmael could say anything in 140 characters).


Jake Bartolone: Exactly that type of person.