Early this year, my brother and I convinced a group of friends to read Moby Dick with us. We enticed them by creating “reading kits” that included the same edition of the book, a 1976 W.W. Norton & Co. hardcover, a loose reading plan and calendar, Monongahela Rye whiskey, whiskey tumblers, and a print that simply read, “Don’t be a jerk, read Moby Dick.” We shipped those reading kits to ten friends around the country. In retrospect, this project seemed less of a book club and more of a social gathering that picked up and reconvened fifteen minutes a night nearly every night for a couple months, even though we were never in the same place at the same time. Experiencing this masterpiece of American literature together was a fantastic way to spend time with good folks, even if socially distanced. Following is a description of the project.
Yep, it’s time. There may not be that perfect time in your life when it’s just you alone next to a wood stove in a small cabin overlooking the ocean, with a week to relax, reflect, and focus on reading. But that space can be found, at least metaphorically, a bit at a time.
Reading Moby Dick can be thought of as the literary equivalent of summiting Mt. Rainier, hiking the Appalachian Trail, or riding the Great Divide. But it doesn’t have to be a grueling slog, to be tackled singularly in one go. A work like this deserves to be savored. In fact, fans of the book often keep a copy readily available to meditate on a passage or two whenever the inspiration strikes.
Moby Dick is an allegorical tale of reckless obsession, the search for knowledge and meaning, the quest to capture what cannot be captured. Its meaning is elusive, but somehow holds all. Its soaring language and prose hold depths far greater than a mere sea-faring whaling yarn as it struggles with mysteries of existence. It is considered by some a kind of “American Bible” (credit to Nathaniel Philbrick, author of 'Why Read Moby-Dick?’) containing hints of the genetic code of what makes America America.
What better text to read in these troubled times when every bedrock American institution and ethos seems to be turned upside down and even forgotten? What is this American culture that we thought we knew and loved, all about?
The name for this project, Don’t be Jerk, Read Moby Dick, is one that Brian thought of while we were sharing our personal bucket lists of books to read. The name has grown to mean something bigger than just reading this particular book, though.
As we’ve grown more and more wary of the cultural screen-swiping away of nuance in what seems like all social discourse, we’ve once again found inspiration in the timelessness of the printed word. During a moment of history in which hand-held three-second flashes seem to define our opinions of friends, neighbors, fellow citizens, and really, the whole of our social sphere, it’s refreshing to once again turn to the wisdom of print.
An American Bible is what we may need right now.
In his article “How to Read Moby Dick, The Perfect Book for Troubled Times,” writer Alex Scordelis relays advice that a friend, writer Michael Russell (who happens to be a local food writer for the Oregonian), gave him about reading the novel. That is, read a couple chapters a night with a glass of scotch. Don’t try to binge read it. We thought this was an excellent idea. This is a book that deserves to be savored. Allow time for the prose to sink in, cross reference, re-read sentences, research whaling terms. No one is in a hurry. We’ve waited this long to read the book, why not take our time with it?
As a compliment, a perfect end-of-workday ritual of reflection is a dram of something special, or a finger of a bit of whiskey. Try something new in the spirit of this project. If you are off the hooch, by all means, still join along. The point here is to treat yourself. Tea or Kombucha works, and/or a fancy snack may be a good pairing with the text as well.
We’re reading this book together. We’re starting on Januaury 18th. Call it a book club if you want. But no one’s going to check up on you or ask you for your analysis on this or that. We’ve broken the book down by reading sessions, each an average of ten pages. If you read it according to our suggested sessions, and do so every night, it’ll take 60 days to finish. But we’ll likely take extra time to re-read sections, listen to corresponding podcasts in-between sessions, research, ponder. That said, we hope to finish the sessions by May 1st. Do what is comfortable.
This second edition of the W.W. Norton printing of Moby Dick was published as a hardcover for the American bicentennial in 1976. A couple years ago in the Before Times, Brian found a copy of this edition at Mother Foucault’s Bookshop. Bound in blue-gray cloth, with a dust jacket, and printed on a deckled text block featuring red topstain, we thought this was one of the most handsome modern editions of The Whale, a vessel worthy enough of the journey.
We were surprised to learn that Bourbon, the preeminent American whiskey, was not the most popularly consumed American whiskey style during the early-to-mid 19th century, in Melville’s day. At the time, the archetypal American whiskey was Pennsylvania Rye, and specifically, Monongahela Rye, named for the river valley in which the rye was grown and distilled. “Old Monongahela” is mentioned by name in the book, as a simile to the blood spout of a harpooned whale. We’ve started you out on this journey with a sample of Wigle’s Small Cask Monongahela Organic Rye, hopefully enough to get you through a reading session or two.
1. Loomings, The Carpet-Bag (pages 3-12)
2. The Spouter Inn (pages 12-27)
3. The Counterpane, Breakfast (pages 27-33)
4. The Street, The Chapel, The Pulpit (pages 33-40)
5. The Sermon (pages 41-49)
6. A Bosom Friend, Nightgown (pages 49-55)
7. Biographical, Wheelbarrow (pages 55-62)
8. Nantucket, Chowder (pages 62-67)
9. The Ship (pages 67-80)
10. The Ramadan, His Mark (pages 81-90)
11. The Prophet, All Astir (pages 90-97)
12. Going Aboard, Merry Christmas (pages 97-104)
13. The Lee Shore, The Advocate, Postscript, Knights and Squires (pages 105-114)
14. Knights and Squires, Ahab (pages 115-124)
15. Enter Ahab; To Him, Stubb, The Pipe, Queen Mab (pages 124-130)
16. Cetology (pages 131-145)
17. The Specksynder, The Cabin Table (pages 145-153)
18. The Mast-Head (pages 153-160)
19. The Quarter-Deck (pages 160-167)
20. Sunset, Dusk, First Night Watch, Midnight, Forecastle (pages 168-178)
21. Moby Dick (pages 178-187)
22. The Whiteness of the Whale, Hark! (pages 187-197)
23. The Chart, The Affidavit (pages 197-210)
24. Surmises, The Mat-Maker, The First Lowering (pages 210-226)
25. The Hyena, Ahab’s Boat and Crew, The Spirit Spout, The Albatross, The Gam (pages 227-241)
26. The Town-Ho’s Story (pages 242-261)
27. Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales, Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes (pages 261-269)
28. Of Whales in Paint; In Teeth; In Wood; In Sheet Iron; In Stone; In Mountains; In Stars, Brit, Squid, The Line, (pages 270-281)
29. Stubbs Kills a Whale, The Dart, The Crotch (pages 281-289)
30. Stubb’s Supper (pages 289-297)
31. The Whale as a Dish, The Shark Massacre, Cutting In (pages 297-304)
32. The Blanket, The Funeral, The Sphynx (pages 304-311)
33. The Jeroboam’s Story, The Monkey Rope (pages 311-321)
34. Stubb and Flask Kill a Right Whale; and Then Have a Talk Over Him, The Sperm Whale’s Head (pages 321-331)
35. The Right Whale’s Head, The Battering Ram, The Great Heidelburgh Tun (pages 331-338)
36. Cistern and Buckets, The Prairie (pages 338-345)
37. The Nut, The Pequod Meets the Virgin (pages 345-358)
38. The Honor and Glory of Whaling, Jonah Historically Regarded (pages 358-365)
39. The Fountain, The Tail (pages 365-375)
40. The Grand Armada (pages 375-386)
41. Schools and Schoolmasters, Fast Fish and Loose Fish (pages 386-393)
42. Heads or Tails, The Pequod Meets the Rose Bud (pages 393-403)
43. Ambergris, The Castaway (pages 403-409)
44. A Squeeze of the Hand, The Cassock, The Try-Works (pages 410-419)
45. The Lamp, Stowing Down and Clearing Up, The Doubloon (pages 420-428)
46. Leg and Arm: The Pequod of Nantucket Meets the Samuel Enderby of London (pages 429-426)
47. The Decanter, A Bower in the Arsacides (pages 436-444)
48. Measurement of the Whale’s Skeleton, The Fossil Whale, Does the Whale’s Magnitude Diminish? (pages 444-454)
49. Ahab’s Leg, The Carpenter, Ahab and the Carpenter (pages 454-463)
50. Ahab and Starbuck in the Cabin, Queequeg in His Coffin (pages 464-472)
51. The Pacific, The Blacksmith, The Forge (pages 472-479)
52. The Glider, The Pequod Meets the Bachelor, The Dying Whale, The Whale Watch, The Quadrant (pages 480-490)
53. The Candles (pages 490-497)
54. The Deck Towards the End of the First Night Watch, Midnight-The Forecastle Bulwarks, Midnight Aloft-Thunder and Lightning, The Musket, The Needle (pages 498-507)
55. The Log and Line, The Life Buoy, The Deck (pages 507-515)
56. The Pequod Meets the Rachel, The Cabin, The Hat (pages 515-525)
57. The Pequod Meets the Delight, The Symphony (pages 526-531)
58. The Chase-The First Day (pages 531-540)
59. The Chase-The Second Day (pages 540-549)
60. The Chase-The Third Day (pages 550-563)
How to Read Moby Dick, The Perfect Book for Troubled Times, article by Alex Scordelis
The Endless Depths of Moby Dick Symbolism, Atlantic article by Joe Fassler and David Gilbert
Moby Dick Energy, a podcast by Talia Lavin
Moby Dick Big Read, web and podcast-based audio reading of the entire book, by chapter
Power Moby Dick, web-based annotation
How to Read Moby Dick, a Guide for First-Time Readers, a website with helpful information
Don't Be a Jerk, Read Moby Dick prints at Fiddleink
Moby Dick Sparknotes, a handy print-based study guide
Why Read Moby Dick? A book by Nathaniel Philbrick
'Why Read Moby-Dick?': A Passionate Defense Of The 'American Bible' NPR interview and transcript
“Whales” a song by Liquid Draino