Why Read Moby-Dick?

by Suzanne Calvin

I’m a tremendous fan of the non-fiction of Nathaniel Philbrick and get his regular e-newsletter. The one that came out today touts his brand-new book, available later this month: “Why Read Moby-Dick?” It is interesting that Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s monumental opera which saw its world premiere here in 2010 seemed to be in the vanguard of a wave of renewed interest in Melville’s sprawling 19th century novel.

In any event, here’s the pertinent portion of the official Philbrick newsletter from editor Meghan Walker:

Dear Suzanne,
It seems that everywhere you go—in culture high and low—you bump into Moby-Dick. The novel has inspired plays, films, operas, comic books, a recent television miniseries with William Hurt and Ethan Hawke, a Blackberry ad, and even a pop-up book. Those who have never read a word of it know the story of Ahab and the White Whale.
Why are we so drawn to this epic tale? With his new book, Why Read Moby-Dick? (Viking; in stores on October 20th) Nat provides his own provocative answer to the question posed in the book’s title. As he says in the opening chapter, “Moby-Dick may be well known, but of the handful of novels considered American classics, such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby, it is the most reluctantly read.”
A beautifully packaged volume, Why Read Moby-Dick? is intended for everyone: those who have never read Melville’s classic, for those who slogged through it once in high school and vowed never to read it again, and for those who have read it a dozen times.
Nat’s goal in writing the book is to get us to “spend time with the novel, to listen as [we] read, to feel the prose adapt to the various voices that flowed through Melville during the book’s composition like intermittent ghosts with something urgent and essential to say.”
Nantucket, the first great whaling port and the holy ground of Moby-Dick, has been Nat’s home since 1986. Perhaps this explains in part Nat’s love for Melville’s novel.
In September, Nat set out with fellow Nantucketer John Stanton of Shouldered Oar Films to create a book trailer for Why Read Moby-Dick?
“We filmed all the footage in one hectic day on Nantucket, in between the harbor at daybreak and the bluff at dusk,” says John Stanton.
It cannot be denied that the novel still has an inescapable hold on the place Ishmael proclaims is “a mere hillock, an elbow of sand; all beach, without a background.”
“Nantucketers have a natural connection to Moby-Dick, both historic and metaphorical,” says Stanton. “This island is so steeped in whaling history that you can almost get a sense of it by simply walking across the cobblestones.”
You can watch the video here.
The dinghy that Nat is rowing in the opening scenes of the book trailer was built by his father Thomas Philbrick. “My dad is a retired English professor,” Nat says, “and it’s most appropriate that his boat appears in a video about a book he’s come to know so well.”
Nat has some great events coming up and looks forward to getting out there and talking to readers about Moby-Dick. He’ll visit New York, Baltimore, Cambridge, Providence, Falmouth, and of course the whaling capitals of both New Bedford and his home Nantucket.
To get a taste of what’s in store with this book, check out the November issue of Vanity Fair, on stands now. Unfortunately Johnny Depp beat out Nat for the magazine’s cover shot, but there is an adapted excerpt from Why Read Moby-Dick? on the pages within.

Suzanne Calvin, Manager/Director Media & PR

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