with intense eagerness since 2012! a channel of the los angeles review of books

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.


Related Posts


  1. Excellent questions. Mansplaining, probs not, since he’s all about incompletion, fragmentation, not knowing shit while trying to know it. Strategic mancompetence?–he does disappear a lot, true. But given all the really cool shit about himself he *doesn’t* tell us about–like the fact that hipster Ishmael has full sleeve tattoos even as he’s all pretending to be freaked out by Queequeg’s tattoos, like what’s up with the lounging boys from Lima, etc. etc. we may need a new term. Fauxhemian distance?

  2. Hm. I did throw “mansplaining” in there without thinking about it too hard, and maybe you’re right. He does tend to get pretty explainy in the first handful of chapters, which is what I had in mind. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he frequently goes off on a mangent.

  3. this whole mansplain/mancompetence/mangent discussion is so great, and it really makes me wish I were still teaching moby-dick ( Teny) because it would be the most awesome way to start a discussion about gender and Ishmael’s language. TAKE NOTE, Jake Bartolone, because this is actually going to be helpful as you get further in to the book.

  4. Two linguistic thoughts/questions, actually. First, maybe aimed at Hester: we’ve established that dick meant dick back in the day. Did Moby have a meaning back then? Because I’m pretty sure that little bald DJ guy wasn’t around back then. Second, more of a comment: I thought it was pretty interesting that we don’t see Queequeg talk for the first several chapters, it’s just Ishmael describing what he said. When he finally does have dialog on the page, it’s brief but jarring.

  5. Jake, the point about Queequeg not actually talking is a really good one. One good way to think through that: how is melville staging the difference between ishamel/queequeg’s ways of learning/knowing? Ishmael generates reams and reams of text; Queequeg IS text (that’s a little glib, but, you know). Though, per hester’s point, what we know about the difference between them changes throughout the text (cf IShmael’s tattoos; SHHH, Hester, Spoiler!!)

  6. I think it is an actually really revealing thing about this book, and what’s at stake in it, that “HOLY SHIT ISHMAEL HAS TATTOOOS!!” is actually a really meaningful spoiler. like, that CHANGES THE WHOLE THING. also, Peter Coviello and Sarah Blackwood, i know you’re busy, like, teaching moby-dick today to your actual students, but I am fairly desperate for you to weigh in on this conversation. If i were teaching moby-dick today, I would totally make the point about the tattoo spoiler.

    • Where does it reveal that Ishmael has tattoos? I missed that part (which isn’t too surprising, I think, in such a massive book).

      Also, how did you think that was revealing? It doesn’t really change anything for me.

      • Two things, quickly. First, as hinted above, Ishmael’s tattoos make the difference between Ishmael and Queequeg–his description of Queequeg’s tattoos make it seem as if he finds the tattoos barbaric, and then you learn that he’s right in there, with that barbarism. Second, they tell you something about what Ishamel does after the voyage of the Pequod. Instead of being all, “whoah, sailors be crazy,” he continued into the sailor-crazy himself.

        • Ah, interesting point, although I’m not sure I agree that alters the central themes of the book all that much. After all, Ismael quickly gets over Queequeg;s appearance and acknowledges that he is human and his equal.

          Sorry if I’m being dense, but I still can’t find where it mentions that Ismael has tattoos. Were you serious about that, or only joking?

  7. I just got back from taking my students on a walking tour down to the battery where I made them listen to me read from Moby-Dick and expound on landlessness and inlanders. I made them FEEL the WILD WIND down there and THINK ABOUT THEIR CHAINED DESKS back at campus and then at the end I paused and said, “Okay, we can leave it there. You can stay here ocean gazing, or you can go back to your chains and desks” and every single one of them turned on their heel in a second and left.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here