Last Wednesday night was a holiday special for fans of the novel Moby-Dick, or any other maritime tale. Nathaniel Philbrick, the Nantucket author of a number of best-selling maritime history books, including In the Heart of the Sea, talked to an audience at the Black Dog Tavern about his most recent work, a 132-page book called Why Read Moby-Dick?, published by Penguin Group.
The night couldn’t have been more appropriate for anyone who has either experienced the epic novel as a reader or watched it on the movie screen.
There also couldn’t have been a more appropriate venue than the Black Dog Tavern located on the shore of Vineyard Haven harbor. Close one eye and it could be the fictitious Spouter Inn Jawbone Tavern in New Bedford, featured in chapter three of Moby-Dick.
Mr. Philbrick began by telling the audience he felt honored to be at the Vineyard tavern as a guest of Sail Martha’s Vineyard, the host. He paid high honors to his host, the Vineyard sailing program that provides free sailing instruction to Island youth. “Years ago Nantucket had no community sailing program for its youth. We looked to you,” Mr. Philbrick said. “We wanted to emulate you.”
After several years of effort Nantucket now has a year-round instructional sailing program.
Mr. Philbrick said he grew up hearing about the book Moby-Dick quite a lot. Mr. Philbrick’s father, Thomas Philbrick, was an English professor.
“My father had a specialty in maritime literature. And Moby-Dick was the book he would teach every year.”
Mr. Philbrick said he hadn’t wanted to read the book, though. “As a teenager, anything that your father finds of interest is the stupidest thing,” he said.
But to graduate from high school, he had to read it. “So I read Moby-Dick ... And I was harpooned.”
Mr. Philbrick’s new book is an effort to spear others. But he did admit the book is unconventional.
“It is a weird book. It is long. It has all these little chapters that seem to have nothing to do with the plot. If you have any kind of interest in what is going to happen next, it is as if Melville designed this book to totally frustrate you,” Mr. Philbrick said.
“But that is part of the delight of the book,” he continued. “For me, Moby-Dick is like a personal Bible. I will read it straight through. Sometimes, I will just open it up,” he said.
Mr. Philbrick urges readers to take their time and savor each chapter. Some of the 135 chapters are only two pages in length.
“It is the level of the poetry, the level of language ... It is the longest poem in the English language, perhaps,” he said.
In writing the book, Mr. Philbrick said, “I began to look into what were the historical circumstances that Melville was operating under when he wrote the book. When Melville was working on this, America was hurtling towards what would become the Civil War.”
At the time there were riots in Boston, all related to slavery. “This was all going on while Melville was writing Ahab,” Mr. Philbrick said.
Mr. Philbrick said Moby-Dick seems to resonate most today whenever some catastrophic event looms. “Whenever America finds itself on the verge of a disaster, whether it is economic, there is a tsunami, oil spill in the Gulf, a new Middle East dictator, when this happens, Moby-Dick becomes amazingly relevant.”
Surprisingly, Moby-Dick was not a popular book when it first came out. Mr. Philbrick speculates that it was too close to its own time period. The book did not begin to gain acclaim until America faced World War I.
At the end of Mr. Philbrick’s book he writes, “This redemptive mixture of skepticism and hope, this genial stoicism in the face of a short, ridiculous, and irrational life, is why I read Moby-Dick.”
Sail Martha’s Vineyard hosts another dinner/talk on Wednesday, April 25. The guest is Bill Cook, a yacht designer and sailor. He will show a video on sailing to Greenland. Call Sail Martha’s Vineyard for more information at 508-696-7644.