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Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Hosted By Yiyun Li

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I have been reading Moby-Dick for as long as I have been reading War and Peace. They have each anchored me for six months in the past many years. I cannot explain my obsession with these two books, except that they have become part of the rhythm of my reading and writing, which is also the rhythm of living.

Yiyun Li 

is the author of several novels, including The Book of Goose (FSG) and Where Reasons End, which received the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award; the memoir Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (both Random House); and Tolstoy Together (A Public Space Books). She is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, Windham-Campbell Prize, and the PEN/Malamud Award, among other honors. A contributing editor to A Public Space, she teaches at Princeton University.

Herman Melville

(1819–1891) was American novelist, short-story writer, and poet, best known for his masterpiece, Moby Dick.

Daily Reading

Day 1

March 18, 2022 | Chapters 1-3

Call me Melville’s reader. Some time ago–after finishing my annual reading of Moby-Dick and already missing the watery world–I thought I would take on a new way of reading, copying out Moby-Dick by hand–the epitome of slow reading and savoring every word.

Day 2

March 19, 2022 | Chapters 4-8

“Yes; all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.” Brave: what a strange and unforgettable adjective.

Day 3

March 20, 2022 | Chapters 9-12

Father Mapple “offered a prayer so deeply devout that he seemed kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea.” I often wonder if this image led to this phrase in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping: “the lightless, aireless water below.”

Day 4

March 21, 2022 | Chapters 13-16

“Queequeg, for his own private reasons, preferred his own harpoon.” Just as a violinist carries his own violin, a sculptor his own tools, Queequeg is a true professional of the art of whaling. (Though Ishmael, the amateur, is the better storyteller.)

Day 5

March 22, 2022 | Chapters 17-21

“Hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling.” Ishmael’s thought reminds me of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s The Waste Books, with notes spanning decades. I would read a similar book of thoughts, observations, and memoranda by Ishmael.

Day 6

March 23, 2022 | Chapters 22-27

Bildad and Peleg, sending Pequod off with emotion and stoicism, are like men leading a funeral procession. On any given day someone is born and someone dies. This funeral for Pequod and its crew, foreshadowing their demise, happens on Christmas.

Day 7

March 24, 2022 | Chapters 28-32

28 chapters in—one fifth into the novel—we finally get to meet Ahab, the “supreme lord and dictator” of the Pequod, and the chapter ends with an image of the thunder-cloven old oak sending off green shoots, resonating with Andrei’s revival in War and Peace.

Day 8

March 25, 2022 | Chapters 33-35

“The ringed crown of geographical empire encircles an imperial brain”: the line (and the whole passage) brings to mind the speech of the hollow crown by Richard II.

Day 9

March 26, 2022 | Chapters 36-41

“...shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose.” Ahab raves like Lear. However, the comparison of the sob to that of a dying moose, an ancient-looking, giant, solitary animal, may even make Shakespeare jealous.

Day 10

March 27, 2022 | Chapters 42-45

The 3rd paragraph of “The Whiteness of the Whale” is one sentence, with 17 semicolons, and the word “though” appearing 12 times. What an endeavor to lead us to the final sentence: “there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue…”

Day 11

March 28, 2022 | Chapters 46-49

“It seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates.” The moment of lull for Ishmael to philosophize: what joy that he and Queequeg are engaged in a domestic act of weaving.

Day 12

March 29, 2022 | Chapters 50-53

“That unnearable spout was cast by one self-same whale; and that whale, Moby Dick.” I love the entire chapter, “The Spirit-spout,” about the soundless siren song of Moby Dick. Especially love that adjective: unnearable.

Day 13

March 30, 2022 | Chapters 54-55

The Town-Ho chapter could be a stand-alone short story. Moby Dick as the executioner of Radney, the tyrannical coward, and the savior of the wronged Steelkilt: justice can be as fable-like, fantastical, and unreal as the white whale.

Day 14

March 31, 2022 | Chapters 56-61

Day 15

April 1, 2022 | Chapters 62-67

Some chapters for April Fool’s Day! They remind me of a common complaint that this or that book is not for the fainthearted. Really, one wants to ask, has great literature ever been written to cater the fainthearted?

Day 16

April 4, 2022 | Chapters 68-72

“Oh, man! Admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it.” Ishmael’s sermon: “hopeless” in his own words. Perhaps all truths contain an element of hopelessness.

Day 17

April 5, 2022 | Chapters 73-77

Right Whale was so named because it was the “right” whale to hunt—slow moving, and after being killed it floats. All whales should be the wrong whales to hunt; why not rename the Right Whale as the Left Whale, to be left alone?

Day 18

April 6, 2022 | Chapters 78-81

Tashtego stuck in the whale head in a breech position, then rotated by Queequeg to be delivered head first to safety: despite some comments that the novel has but few female characters, there are plenty of housekeeping activities throughout, and now midwifery.

Day 19

April 7, 2022 | Chapters 82-86

It’s a good day to whale-hunt in ancient Chinese. Zuo Qiuming (~500 BC), a blind historian, compared a big nation that annexed a small nation to a whale. Erya, the first surviving dictionary (~300 BC), recorded detailed observations about whales.

Day 20

April 8, 2022 | Chapters 87-88

“There is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.” Truer words have never been spoken—so rarely does one get a chance to resort to a cliche like this to express one’s awe.

Day 21

April 9, 2022 | Chapters 89-93

“What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?” What dreadful comfort to know that a book, having been written, is a Loose-Fish, which, if read, becomes a Fast-Fish belonging to the reader.

Day 22

April 10, 2022 | Chapters 94-98

“The Try-Works” is another spectacular chapter—I always wish I could memorize it. “A plethoric burning martyr, or a self-consuming misanthrope” sounds an apt description of a writer, certainly, even though we aspire to be the Catskill eagle?

Day 23

April 11, 2022 | Chapters 99-102

“The Doubloon” is one Shakespearean experience! Little Pip, reciting Murray’s Grammar, is Prince Hamlet in disguise.

Day 24

April 12, 2022 | Chapters 103-107

“Thus we see how that the spine of even the hugest living things tapers off at last into simple child’s play.” Echo of Hamlet here: “Worms are the emperor of all diets… A fat king and a skinny beggar are just two dishes at the same meal.”

Day 25

April 13, 2022 | Chapters 108-112

“How dost thou know that some entire, living, thinking thing may not be invisibly and uninterpenetratingly standing precisely where thou now standst… In thy most solitary hours, then, dost thou not fear eavesdroppers?” Ahab speaks eloquently of the ineffable.

Day 26

April 14, 2022 | Chapters 113-119

Day 27

April 15, 2022 | Chapters 120-126

“I wonder, Flask, whether the world is anchored anywhere; if she is, she swings with an uncommon long cable, though.” Pequod is a strange ship: she turns everyone on board into a philosopher, a poet, a dramatist, and a prophet.

Day 28

April 16, 2022 | Chapters 127-131

“Art thou not an arrant, all-grasping, intermeddling, monopolizing, heathenish old scamp…thou art as unprincipled as the gods, and as much of a jack-of-all-trades.” I once had a poster of Shakespearean insults. This one from Ahab could go on there, too.

Day 29

April 17, 2022 | Chapters 132-133

“From beneath his slouched hat Ahab dropped a tear into the sea; no did all the Pacific contain such wealth as that one wee drop.” Tears shed by most characters in most books evaporate. This single drop by Ahab is tear immortal.

Day 30

April 18, 2022 | Chapters 134-epilogue

“Ah! how they still strove through that infinite blueness to seek out the thing that might destroy them!” Show me one soul who is ever free from that fate, Ishmael!

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