Book Review: Moby Dick #11 In My Modern Library Classics Challenge


Moby Dick by Herman Melville

“Call me Ishmael.” Perhaps the most famous first line in American literature, this is the start of Moby Dick. “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee” From the book of Job, as quoted by the character Ishmael in the Epigraph of Moby Dick.

The Book Review

Moby Dick is known mostly for its story of Captain Ahab and his single minded, mad focus on hunting down the albino whale Moby Dick, which took his leg on their first encounter. The story is a morality play with the primordial whale bringing the mad captain and his crew to a sorry end.

Anyone who hasn’t read the book, or who, like me, last read it decades ago as an assignment in high school literature class, may be surprised to find that the story of Ahab and the White Whale takes up perhaps, generously, a quarter of the book (though it is spread in chapters throughout). Our friend and narrator Ishmael takes us through several other stories before the book’s end, including giving us involved lessons on whaling and how to be a whaler that often act as philosophical meditations on life.

The style of the book is anything but constant. Some chapters carry the main story forward in a novel-like way. Others are set pieces - plays in miniature complete with stage settings and soliloquies. Some chapters are the whaling lessons mentioned above, and yet others capture stories based on  Melville’s own seafaring adventures. 

Melville is said to have been working from several ideas when writing this book. Those include the supposed real life tale of the killing of a white whale known as Mocha Dick in the 1830s; his own love of Shakespeare and prose poetry; and the idea that whaling as an industry had never been adequately written about before from the standpoint of the whaler. 

The resulting book does convey all those ideas, but lacks a coherent narrative and has frustrated many readers with  what can seem like digressions on top of digressions.

Perhaps adding to the muddle was the fact that Melville was almost finished with the book when he first met Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom he greatly admired and who, after the two met,  influenced the final version of Moby Dick, which Melville felt compelled to practically rewrite after having met Hawthorne. 

What influence Hawthorne had on the book, and what the relationship actually was between the two men has been the subject of speculation for many years. Melville, who was bisexual, wrote several letters to Hawthorne full of passion and yearning. 

The letters are collected in the book The Divine Magnet, edited by Mark Niemeyer. They also form the basis for the wonderful short 2016 novel The Whale: A Love Story by Mark Beauregard. Whether there was a sexual component to their relationship or not, its clear that Melville cared deeply for Hawthorne. He dedicated Moby Dick to him, and they each wrote glowing reviews of the other’s later works.

What all of this means is this - to read and appreciate Moby Dick you’ll need to set aside any notions you have of how a  “typical” novel should progress, and open yourself up to hearing a number of stories within a story, as you might from a favorite long-winded uncle who nevertheless has a way with words. Be warned that this book is a “love it” or “hate it” book, leaving few readers in between. As for me, while I must admit some of the 600 odd pages were a slog, by and large I love this book.

While reading this again in the form of my Modern Library edition,  I also had a chance to poke around at audio recordings and can highly recommend the Librivox version narrated by Stewart Wills. I listened to some chapters  of the book while traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday and found Wills’ narration first rate. He gets many 5 star reviews on Librivox. Best of all this version is free to listen to. 

Classics Challenge

This is the eleventh book in my 2022 Modern Library Classics Challenge. I’m challenging myself to read at least one of my Modern Library classics each month this year- only one more to go! This goal is part of my overall goal to read 100 books for the year. 

I own over 40 Modern Library editions that I collected in my first years out of college. At the time I was buying them, I admired them more as “art” than as books. I just liked the idea of pocket sized hardcovers, which is interesting since at the time most of the books I was buying to read were trade-sized paperbacks. Treated as art on my shelf, I haven’t ever read my Modern Library editions. So, it’s about time to do so now that I’m retired.

Reviews to date:

Book 1: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Book 2: A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by James Joyce

Book 3: The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells

Book 4: Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

Book 5: The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze by William Saroyan

Book 6: The African Queen by C.S. Forester

Book 7: Disraeli: A Picture of the Victorian Age by Andrรฉ Maurois

Book 8: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Book 9: Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand,  translated by Brian Hooker

Book 10: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

Steve's Book Stuff participates in affiliate programs for the booksellers asterisked below.  Purchases you make through an affiliate link will return a small commission to me, at no additional cost to you. 

Borrow or Purchase Moby Dick here:

๐Ÿ“™  Borrow this book: Find out if your library has the ebook or audiobook available through OverDrive or Libby.

๐Ÿ“˜ Buy this book: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | AbeBooks* | Powell’s | ThriftBooks 

๐Ÿ“— Support Indie Bookstores: Buy this book directly from* or find an Independent Bookstore near you*

๐Ÿ“š Visit my shop to see all my reviewed books. 

Title: Moby Dick

Author: Herman Melville

Original Publisher: Harper & Brothers

Original Publication Date: November 14, 1851

My Modern Library edition  was likely printed sometime between 1929 and 1950, based on the research found at It's hard to nail down a more exact date due to the lack of a dust jacket and any original owner marks.

Modern Library is now an imprint of Penguin Random House (PRH). The ISBN referenced in my links above are to the current “Collins Classics” edition by Harper Collins, in recognition of the fact that Harper & Brothers were the original American publishers of Moby Dick. (As of April 2020, PRH is a subsidiary of the privately held German conglomerate Bertelsmann.)