Everyone who’s reading Moby-Dick for the second time, or who jumped right in without any problems, can feel free to ignore me. Next time I’ll actually dip my toe into actually reading the book: I swear! But if you’re having some issues, or are hesitant about getting started, read on.
While I am the first person to enthuse about how great Moby-Dick is, I’m not going to deny that it’s long, or gloss over the fact that a lot of the words are going to be unfamiliar. The book has some special challenges in that there’s a lot of factual info wedged in between pieces of the story, so there are whole chunks of stuff talking about whaling, for example.
As someone who reads a lot of old-timey books, my advice is: if you get bogged down in harpoons, or the details of whale biology – feel free to skip over it! There’s no shame. A book this size is written in big, bold strokes, so there’s no need for you to feel anxious about the details. Well, unless you really want to, then go ahead and obsess. That’ll put you in more of an Ahab-like frame of mind.
I always say that a big fat book is like a really good soap opera. If you watch every day, there’s nuances that you’ll get, character stuff you’ll pick up on. But if you miss a week, you can pick it up without having really missed all that much. Some people love pages of descriptive detail, and some are driven crazy by it. If you hate it, skim it. You’re not being graded or judges, so if you just want to get back to the story, go for it!
It’s the same with unfamiliar vocabulary. Word meanings change, and context makes a difference. There’s never a reason to beat yourself up for not knowing that a “packet” was a kind of boat, and not a bundle of some sort, like any normal person today would think it is. You can note words to look up later, in a notebook, or even with a little mark in the margins, or an underline – but not, obviously, if you’re reading a library book. Some people like to have a dictionary handy. Do whatever you’re comfortable with!
There are some handy resources on the 3.2.1 website (scroll down to “Additional ways to access Moby-Dick for free”). One my faves is Power Moby Dick, where you can read the book with the “Show Notes” feature, so a strip of annotation runs along the side. These tell you about places, historical context, Biblical allusions, and definitions of unfamiliar words. The site also has links to a huge amount of random Moby Dick-related goings-on (puppet theater, t-shirts, art shows, rock songs) to get lost in.
The good thing about a site like this is that it makes it easier to pick up on the things that might otherwise slow you down, and get you past them with no muss or fuss. You do have to see it online, though, but even though I’m reading a physical book, I have popped back to it, as a one-stop shop for things like New England geography and references to contemporary events (that is, contemporary to Melville).
And now: onto the Great White Whale!