A whale, an app, and me; or, how I finished reading Moby Dick in 79 easy pieces

Hast seen the white whale?

moby-dick-3I have!

I conquered that whale, and good.

Yes, after spending all of my reading life up to now saying, “I should probably read Moby Dick one of these days” but knowing in my heart that I never actually would… I DID IT!

Thanks to the glory of the Serial Reader app (read about it here), I have finally conquered the American classic that I never expected to read.

moby-dick_fe_title_pageSerial Reader is an app that lets you pick a public domain book to “subscribe” to. Each day, a new installment is ready to go. I got kind of used to waking up in the morning and seeing the friendly “Ahoy!” messages (I kid you not) letting me know that the new daily reading chunk was ready and waiting. Each day’s reading was typically short enough to read in 10 – 15 minutes.

Is 10 – 15 minutes something I could spare? Absolutely.

Let’s face it — the idea of reading Moby Dick or certain other massive classics is just way too daunting. I’m not afraid of the content, but I do know myself well enough to know that I’ll push my way through while constantly aching to go back to something that doesn’t feel like I’ve given myself an assignment.

But 10 – 15 minutes? Heck, I could do that over my morning coffee (which is exactly what I did most days).

I did read ahead at least a few days per week, so rather than taking 79 days to read, I finished the book in more like 60, I think.

whales-1472984_1280You probably want to know – how was it? I mean, was the book actually good?

The answer is YES. Surprise, surprise — it’s even funny at parts. Herman Melville can tell a tale, I tell you.

Of course, there are huge chunks in the middle where we have chapter after chapter about whale anatomy, the parts of whaling ships, descriptions of the jobs of every person on board a whaling ship… on and on and on. The early chapters are about our narrator Ishmael, and there are some delightful moments when he befriends the “cannibal” Queequeg, although I was sorry to see their bromance fade from the storyline as the book progresses. Really, if you took out all the parts about categorizing and labeling whale parts, the story of the Pequod and its mad captain Ahab would probably only be about a third as long as Moby Dick is in its entirety.

As to the method of reading the book, the Serial Reader approach has its pros and cons.

PROS: I read the damn book! I really don’t believe I ever would have done it otherwise. The app kept me motivated, with its scoring and little achievement badges and daily encouragements with each segment completed.

CONS: While I read the book (hurray!), I don’t believe I came even close to fully appreciating it. I read it quickly, and it was a very surface-level read. I didn’t dive into the symbolism, the structure, the themes, the references — I read it purely for story. I suppose someone could use the app and still take the time for a deeper dive into each installment, but I didn’t. I approached this read as a limited time commitment, with its allotted 10 – 15 minutes per day, and that’s all I was willing to give.


Do I recommend it? Again, yes and no.

The Serial Reader app is a great way to tackle books that you might not ordinarily read. But as for Moby Dick, I do believe that I would have gotten much more out of it if I’d read an annotated version, or even looked through an illustrated edition with diagrams of all the whale anatomy and other goodies.

Will I use Serial Reader again?

Oh, I think so. Maybe not right away. I think I need a little free reading time where I’m not keeping up with quite so many narrative threads at once. (See my post about my reading saturation point, here.)

Likewise, I don’t know if I’d want to tackle such a big book this way again. At some points, it really did feel like a chore, and I’m pretty much opposed to anything that makes reading feel like work, not play.

But I do see the value in using the app to make a challenging read more bite-sized and manageable. I could see myself using the app for some classic sci-fi, like Jules Verne or H. G. Wells, or even some random short stories. As for longer classic fiction, I’m not sure. I’ve been saying I want to read Great Expectations for years now and still haven’t done it, so Serial Reader could be the way to get it done — but I think I’ll get more out of it as a reader if I treat it like any other book I want to read, sitting down with the book and a bookmark, and not starting anything else until I’m done… rather than treating it like an assignment with a daily deadline.


Meanwhile, back to Moby Dick

I read it, and I enjoyed it, and I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit ever since I finished this week. The book has such a reputation as a heavy, overwhelming read, and I was surprised to find that it’s actually fun, entertaining, moving, and at times, laugh-out-loud funny. Sure, the science is a bit (oh, 150 years or so) behind the times, but for when it was written, it’s really quite remarkable. So what if Melville considers whales to be fish? I’d venture to say that what he presented was deemed accurate at the time.

So, consider me a fan. I met the white whale, and survived to tell the tale.



21 thoughts on “A whale, an app, and me; or, how I finished reading Moby Dick in 79 easy pieces

  1. I’ve also been using the app…most recently for Peter Pan. And I agree with everything you said. I feel like I’ve been reading it on a rather superficial level, but at the same time, I’ve never approached Peter Pan as something to actually read. To be honest, most classics are not something I would go out of my way to normally read, so I can see myself using the app a lot in the future for that.

    I wonder, though, if once a book has been read through on the app and enjoyed, then it wouldn’t be a good re-read at some point as just a regular book? As a way to kind of dig in more and get more of the details when it is less intimidating because you already know that you enjoy it and read it the first time in a less intimidating fashion. I can at least see myself reading them that way, because classics are intimidating to me, but I’m more apt to re-read those that I am familiar with already and have enjoyed before.

    • I think your comment about doing a re-read is perfect. Now that I’ve done a very quick and superficial read of Moby Dick, I can see going back to it and trying to delve a bit deeper. In fact, I’m already on the look-out for a good illustrated/annotated edition. I think it would be great to go back and perhaps open it up randomly to see what I missed the first time around.

  2. As I always say, if a book is a classic, there is always a reason 😉

    I used the app to read short stories and I think that’s how I’ll go in the future. Like you, I’m the kind of reader that when is intoa story whats to read it without limit, so I’m a bit worried of reading longer stories this way. The first story I red what one of Sherlock Holmes, it was only two parts, but I was still kind of annoyed when I have to stop in the middel of it. Even if I knew that would be coming.
    So yes, I recommend the app, but I think it’s best for lighter reads 🙂

    • Absolutely! I think it’s funny when I see people giving 1 or 2 stars on Goodreads to Moby Dick and other classics. I always feel like — who am I to review a work that’s considered such a masterpiece by much greater minds than myself?

      I like the idea of trying Sherlock Holmes or some other shorter pieces. Seems like a low commitment way to try new things without investing a huge amount of time or taking myself away from other books I really want to read.

  3. Awesome! I am still on the fence about trying this app. I think if I try it, I’ll go with something short to start. I don’t love reading on my phone, but if this got me reading on my phone instead of doing other time-wasters, it could be a good thing! I didn’t actually know you could skip ahead — is that an upgrade to the free app? If I were really into something, it might annoy me to have to stop!

    • Hmm, it might be the upgrade (which I did, since it was only $2.99). When you finish an installment, it gives you the option to read ahead. I definitely like this feature, because sometimes, either because i had extra time or because I was caught up in what was happening, I just really wanted to keep going. I really don’t like reading on my phone either, but this worked for me, maybe because it made it feel so portable (so while waiting on line at the pharmacy or waiting for my lunch order to be ready, I could get through chunks of the story).

  4. Very good post. I’m tackling Lea Mis with it. I agree with your thoughts on depth of reading with Serial Reader, but the again it is getting me into the book and seeing why it is a classic. I have been angry that 400 pages is a “huge” book today–anything more must be a series.

  5. Thanks for this discussion! I’ve seen the app and wondered if I would feel like I really “read” the book and you brought up a lot of my concerns. I love your thoughts and I might try it for some of the shorter classics.

    • I think that’s how I’m going to use it more often, if I stick with it. I just noticed a few Edgar Allan Poe stories that I haven’t read yet, and those seem to be only 2 – 3 installments, which should be fun.

  6. I’ve never heard of this app but there are a bunch of books I’d like to try (although guessing that 15-minute-chunks of War & Peace might be taking it a little too far?!)

    • Even though I said in my post that I would take a break from the app… I was just poking around again and found so many more books and stories that I want to read! For what it’s worth, I looked up War & Peace — it’s 235 issues via the app. 🙂

  7. Pingback: Bookish (and not so bookish) Thoughts | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

  8. Ahoy there matey! I loved this review and the illustrations that ye did include. I adored Moby Dick – especially the secretions about whaling ships and whale anatomy! Just like I adored the sections in Les Mis that talked about the history of the Parisian sewer system. Though the First Mate and I just talked about Moby Dick because of this post and I don’t seem to remember Pip at all. Might be time for a re-read in the future. Let me know if ye come across a good illustrated or annotated copy.
    x The Captain

  9. I love the idea of this Serial reader and downloaded it a while ago…. and promptly forgot about it. So awesome that you made it through Moby Dick! Last year I tried to listen to chunks of that Moby Dick Big Read or whatever… I got distracted though and never finished. I’ll have to try that app with a few other classics I haven’t yet gotten around to. 🙂

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