Call me Ishmael’s prodigal son


I’m currently rereading Moby Dick.  For my sins.

A couple of weeks ago I encouraged my high school senior English students to make themselves unique in their college application essays.  Set yourself apart, I told them, make your pitch memorable in the big pile of compositions that are usually much the same.

I told them if they write to the popular prompt about the single book that most inspired them to avoid giving their readers, who hold their fates in their hands, a less than truthful answer.

“Don’t tell them Moby Dick is the book that turned your life around”, I told them.  “You haven’t read Moby Dick.  Nobody reads Moby Dick. I read it in college because I had to in an American Masterworks class and had to pass a quiz on every few chapters.

When I’d had time to realize my folly  I told my classes that Melville’s masterpiece is one of the greatest novels ever written and that Nathaniel Hawthorne called it “America’s Epic”.

Which let me off the hook.  Until one of them asked if I’d ever read it again since I’d had to chase those quizzes in what she probably perceived to be the misty dawn of time.

My truthful answer set my course.  Like Ahab, I would again seek the white whale.

That Saturday I located a paperback copy in Barnes & Noble that would set me back twelve bucks.  While waiting in line to make my purchase the fellow behind me showed me a handsome bound hardback edition he was about to pay for.

“I’ve read it twice,” he told me.  I was beginning to think God had a hand in all this.

So I returned the $12.00 paperback to the shelf, picked up a copy of the $20.00 hardback and felt some sense of atonement.

That night I opened it up, read that short first sentence, “Call me Ishmael”, that is perhaps the finest invitation in all of literature.  And I was hooked.

Melville’s vivid descriptions, his narrator Ishmael’s witty observances, and the slowly developing sea journey toward the ultimate rematch between the single-purposed captain of the whaling ship Pequod and the vengeful behemoth all make for a mesmerizing yarn.

I dread finishing it, which is the true litmus test of a good read.  But I already know it is a book I will read again sometime. And I have a student putting me on the spot to thank for it.

If you haven’t read Moby Dick in a while, or never, splurge for the twenty dollar copy. Treat yourself.  You deserve it.


2 thoughts on “Call me Ishmael’s prodigal son

  1. Read it as a freshman in high school and wrote a paper for John Hatch at The Good Hope School in St. Croix, USVI. Later, I read it again as a college sophomore and wrote a paper for some guy named Gilbert Benton. It’s a wonderful book, and I think I need to read it again, without the pressure of an academic assignment hanging over my head.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s