Why read "Moby-Dick"? Why indeed? My B&N edition of Herman Melville's 1850 novel goes 569 pages and weighs about the same as a nice keeper smallmouth bass. As Nathaniel Philbrick, author of other nautical nonfiction bestsellers ("In the Heart of the Sea," "The Mayflower") acknowledges in his new book, "Why Read Moby-Dick?" (Viking/Penguin, 131 pages, $25), "'Moby-Dick' is a long book, and time is short." And it's not merely the length that is daunting. Melville digresses at length on (among other topics) cetology, maritime weather, fishing, politics and the nature of the universe as a "vast practical joke." Add to these reading challenges Melville's fondness for internal monologues where characters sound like one another and chapters framed as dramatic conversations, and we have what Philbrick mildly calls the novel's "experimental swagger."

While it might seem as though readers who surf would have little interest in "Moby-Dick," Philbrick claims just the opposite, that sampling this whale of a novel offers its own rewards. He argues that the book "deserves to be called our American bible," and as such, offers its pleasures and wisdom in distinct sections: It is, in Philbrick's sometimes high-flown prose, "a repository ... of the essentials of Western literature." He whimsically compares the novel's quirky form to the Oldsmobile his grandparents drove in the 1970s, a vehicle that needed constant steering corrections to keep it going straight.

So what's the payoff for long-distance endurance readers? First, Philbrick sees "Moby-Dick" as a novel of its time, one deeply responsive to events of its day. His reading demonstrates how issues of slavery and democracy, evangelism and doubt, brotherhood and tyranny, are embedded in a whale's tale. Melville pays close attention to how men work together aboard the Pequod and appreciates what his narrator, Ishmael, terms the "democratic dignity" typical of American labor in the early Republic.

This harmony, in Philbrick's feverish formulation, is threatened by Capt. Ahab, "a man divided, seared and parboiled by the conflagration raging inside him." Ahab's monomania, according to Philbrick, corresponds to the corruptive force of slavery. In other sections of "Why Read," the author asserts that "Moby-Dick" anticipates Lincoln, the widespread extinction of species and the melting of the world's ice sheet.

More gratifying to me are Philbrick's chapters on characters. He views Ishmael as a "vulnerable wiseass" (I like this) and attributes his ultimate survival to "desperado philosophy": a recognition of his own unimportance. Philbrick admires Queequeg's piety and his gentleness, and tries over several chapters to come to grips with enigmatic Ahab. And, no, the whale is not a symbol, "he is as real as you or I," though Philbrick offers little to explain how he knows this.

Along the way, we get a sense of Melville the writer, his admiration of Nathaniel Hawthorne (and the older writer's influence upon the creation of "Moby-Dick"), his work on revising the novel, his sad personal slide into obscurity. After being out of print for decades, "Moby-Dick" was "rediscovered" in the first half of the 20th century. Nathaniel Philbrick's entertaining little book about a big book is a worthy effort to return Melville's masterpiece to public prominence.

  • Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.