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.

in-the-heart-of-the-sea-whale-xlarge-large_transrp36ti1mfcyr8pmus2fhb17hoduspm84eyl8thpmrlk

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.

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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.

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