Herman Melville was 32 years old when he published Moby Dick. In his lifetime, a mere 3,000 copies were sold. In the years following Moby Dick, he published a few more works, but none of them amounted to much, and in the end he took a job as a customs officer in NYC. Upon his death, his works were reexamined and by the centennial of his birth, their popularity was catching on.
I know all this because when I get hooked on a book, I tend to research the author. This particular book is fascinating to me, because I don’t know much about the subject- whaling, fishing, life at sea. In my spare moments, I have researched the different species of whales, what the inside of a whaling vessel in the mid 19th century might have looked like, and I have examined nautical maps of where the Pequod would have travelled. I read about the real life story that the novel was based on, the sinking of the Essex in the 1820’s, and how a few of the crew survived at sea in their small boats only by resorting to cannibalism. While there are no women on the Pequod, I have learned a great deal about the fact that some whaling captains would bring their wife and children along with them on their 3-4 year long journeys. In listening to Moby Dick, I’ve had lessons about harpoons and harpooners, shipping lanes, whale diets, and sea faring superstitions.
None of these I knew above a week ago, and while I account I am still only half way through the book, I must conclude that it is an author like Melville that can stir a deep longing in me to see the world, be it ever so briefly, through his eyes. I already know the ending of the story, the fate of the Pequod carries no mystery, so it is the journey I am there for. So tomorrow morning, as I sit in my car amidst the endless mass of humanity, my mind will be more happily employed scanning the seas in my mind for the great white whale.