How to Read Moby-Dick

Professor Martha Elena Rojas at Beavertail State Park, Jamestown, Rhode Island

Photography by Ayla Fox

2019 marks the bicentennial of Herman Melville’s birth. For lit lovers, reaction to this news will depend almost entirely on their feelings about just one of his novels: Moby-Dick.

For those who lie about reading or refuse to read Moby-Dick, it sparks equal amounts exasperation and guilt. For them, the novel has become its namesake: an intimidating, inscrutable monster of a book whose abandonment haunts the reader.

If Melville’s 200th spurs you to take on the tale of the great white whale, English Professor Martha Elena Rojas, who teaches the seminar The Oceanic Nineteenth Century: Race, the Environment, and Its Legacies has a few suggestions:

  • Pick a version that works for you. In addition to the Norton Critical or the Penguin Classics editions of your childhood, there are Moby-Dick picture and pop-up books for children, and graphic novels for young adults. A favorite of Rojas’ is Matt Kish’s monograph Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page. Over a period of 18 months, Kish created a page of art a day inspired by the text. The result is a book 600 pages long with a shipping weight of 4.3 pounds. Melville would be proud.
  • Commit to reading the first 50 pages. “Even if you read only one chapter, you will take something from it,” Rojas says. “I think of the first section of the book as Melville’s long ramp into it, his way of drawing you into the text—and getting you invested in it. Ishmael’s perspective as a somewhat experienced sailor who nonetheless is venturing into unknown territory is very much like the reader’s, and then the friendship which unfolds between Ishmael and Queequeg over these initial chapters models for us a positive encounter with the new and unfamiliar.”
  • Begin at the end. If you get really impatient, stop and read the last three chapters. “Most people already know the plot of Moby-Dick, so that’s one of its challenges: We think we already know it,” Rojas says. “So read the end first, and then pick up the book again to experience how Melville gets us there.”
  • Listen to the audio. On the website Moby-Dick Big Read, each chapter is read by a different person. Actor Tilda Swinton reads the opening chapter. Poet Mary Oliver reads the epilogue. In between, you hear the voices of Royal Shakespeare Company actors. The novel with its scenes of sailors telling yarns and tall tales, of sermons, speeches, and soliloquies is inherently theatrical. It is also, in essence, a collection of stories told in hundreds of shift voices.
  • Get in the mood. Tracks from Laurie Anderson’s multimedia translation, “Songs and Stories from Moby-Dick” appear on her album Life on a String. “I’m partial to ‘The Island Where I Come From,’ with its strains of calypso, and the haunting, poetic ‘Pieces and Parts.'”
  • Set aside time but not too much time. The key to success, Rojas says, is setting aside time specifically for the purpose of reading. In the classroom, she gives her undergraduates three weeks. “Two weeks is not enough, and four is too much,” she says. 
  • Be ready to be rewarded. National Book Award-winner Nathaniel Philbrick, who wrote In the Heart of the Sea, argues in Why Read Moby-Dick that the novel is “as close to being our American Bible as we have.” It’s also a great read, says Rojas. “I’ve begun to think of Moby-Dick as almost encyclopedic. And Moby-Dick has proliferated and permeated modern culture. There are plays, movies, paintings, operas, even rap songs devoted to it.”