In my first teaching interview, I was asked what book I’d most like to teach. Without hesitation, I replied, “Moby Dick.” The interviewer probably thought I was trying to impress him, but it was true. I began teaching “Moby Dick” four years ago, and I hope I’ll be able to continue to teach it for the rest of my career.
I grew up in New England, where I ate at Moby Dick themed restaurants, mini-golfed at Moby Dick themed putt-putt places, and poured over the abridged version of “Moby Dick” all before the age of ten. On the playground, we’d yell “thar she blows” and pretend to harpoon each other. Steeped in nautical history from a young age due to my family’s summer camping on Cape Cod, I didn’t know it was possible to grow up and not have heard of the great white whale, or Ahab, or Ishmael.
When people ask me why they should read “Moby Dick,” I tell them no matter what they’re into, this novel has it. For example, it’s actually quite funny, whether playing off puns or making fart jokes about dyspeptic whales.
If you’re interested in relationships, Ishmael’s bromance with Queequeg provides interesting perspectives on mid-nineteenth century norms.
If you like philosophy, you can stand on the masthead with Ishmael and contemplate existence.
If you love revenge tales, Ahab is obsessed with chasing down the whale who ate his leg.
If you’re into economics or the environment, the novel still bears relevance. Then, people did dangerous jobs like whaling for very little money to supply civilization with whale oil for light. Now, miners provide the mineral tantalum for cell phones. Not so different.
I recently attended a two-week class on “Moby Dick” in New Bedford. It was a chance for me and other MobyDickheads to delve deep into the novel, the nautical knowledge and the historical background. The excitement and exuberance of the lead teacher, Tim Marr, made me realize how my students must feel watching me talk about the novel.
I may get a little carried away, with my whale-themed outfits, sailing puns and enthusiasm for the text, but students remember the book. I have them do a creative response to the novel, and their whale cakes, dramatic monologues, artistic renditions and poetic interpretations show there are ALWAYS new ways to relate to the novel. This year, one student wrote a workout plan for harpooners. Another examined modern poetry to be used with the novel.
I’ll never stop finding new elements of the book to love--thanks to my students and to Melville’s style and precision in writing. On my latest read, I noticed all the pithy maxims, like
· “a purse is but a rag unless you have something in it”
· “ignorance is the parent of fear”
· “Everyone knows that in most people’s estimation, to do anything coolly is to do it genteelly”
So whether you want to read about friendship, philosophy, or revenge, or if you just want beautiful prose that acknowledges a smart reader, “Moby Dick” is the book for you. Pick it up; you’ll enjoy the journey.
Reviewer Kate Walker is an English teacher at the State College Area High School. She has three "Moby Dick" tattoos.