“A Whale of a Tale to Tell You–A Tale of a Tail or Two”



It’s an exciting life we lead here at the Doublewide Ranch. Always something new to share, like the pink blossoming of the peach tree or the thrill of new bluebirds nesting. Or getting to visit with our children over Spring Break. Or the fact that Blue Ridge Blue Collar Man just finished reading Moby Dick.

Moby Dick? Maybe you’re wondering, as I did, why Moby Dick? Well, partly for the intellectual challenge, according to Blue Ridge Blue Collar Man. But also…Providence. He felt like he was destined to read it when he got it for free in a book discard pile where he works. But after hearing his description, you couldn’t get me to read the book if the Lord Himself appeared to me in a radiant, holy vision, a chorus of angels singing in the background, with an illuminated copy of Moby Dick in His hands. (Unless, of course, the Lord told me to read it.)

Oh, it starts out promisingly enough. Right off the bat, in the first sentence, the narrator introduces himself (“Call me Ishmael.”) and explains in the first paragraph why he was heading out to sea.

 “…whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself …pausing before coffin warehouses and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet” and when “it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking peoples’ hats off, then I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

Oh yeah, I get that. I felt like that when I first went into menopause. Wanting to knock peoples’ hats off, that is. Not so much the “pausing before coffin warehouses” part though.

Anyway, things get even more interesting when Ishmael ends up (after looking for a place to stay) having to share a bed with a cannibal named Queepueg. Now, in case you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to sleep with a strange cannibal, well, Ishmael tells you, in considerable and often humorous detail. And in case you’re thinking, Hey, no way I’d sleep with a cannibal!“, well, I like what Ishmael says about that:

“…the man’s a human being, just as I am; he has just as much reason to fear me as I have to be afraid of him. Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

Ha, ha…yeah…that’s what I always say.

My interest in the book was piqued even more when I heard about Ahab, the captain of the ship Ishmael was sailing on, who had only one leg because the other was bitten off. What’s that you say? Oh my goodness, no,…ha, ha…not by the cannibal! It was Moby Dick, the white whale, who did the deed. And, boy howdy, is Captain Ahab ticked off! So ticked off, in fact, that he’s setting sail just to find Moby Dick and avenge his bit-off leg. It’s understandable and all…I mean, how would you feel if a whale bit your leg off?

Anyway, they head out into the stormy deep and it’s all downhill from there. This is the place in the book where Herman Melville can’t decide if he’s writing a novel or a treatise on whaling. He goes off on tangents where he holds forth for several pages about subjects ranging from why the Pacific is his favorite ocean to a graphic description of the skin and blubber of the whale. You would think that Blue Ridge Blue Collar Man, being a carpenter, would have been interested in Melville’s long exposition about the ship’s carpenter, but how could he be when the description contained sentences like this?

“And this it was, this same unaccountable cunning life-principle in him; this it was, that kept him a great part of the time soliloquizing; but only like an unreasoning wheel, which also hummingly soliloquizes ; or rather, his body was a sentry-box and this soliloquizer on guard there and talking all the while to keep himself awake.”

Hey, maybe that’s why Melville soliloquized so much in the book—to keep himself awake! Unfortunately, those of us slogging through his long, excruciating soliloquies on “the honor and glory of whaling” are not so lucky. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

The action does pick up near the end when they finally encounter Moby Dick (“There she blows!”) In case you actually want to read the book, I won’t tell you what happens, but we did learn some valuable lessons. Like, sometimes it’s best to let bygones be bygones. And if the whale is bigger than your ship, maybe you should leave him be. And, well, you should probably stay off the ship in the first place if the captain’s a crazy man. Also… coffins can float! Who knew?

Anyway, I’m proud of Blue Ridge Blue Collar Man. He persevered and finished that thing. I’m thinking about getting him a shirt that says, “I Survived Moby Dick.”

Which brings me to my question. A serious question, believe it or not. As you know, neither Blue Ridge Blue Collar Man nor I went to college and though we are fairly well-read, we’ve wondered if we should read more of the classics. To be honest, I feel a bit like Mark Twain when he said, “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” But as an aspiring writer, I feel that there might be “classics” that I could learn from. (And I should say here that there are many learned people who consider Moby Dick a masterpiece, so maybe we just didn’t get it.)

So, I ask you, my discerning and erudite readers: What classics should we read? And, if not the classics, what books do you think would make us better writers and help make up the education we never had?

Bonus questions: Would you sleep with a cannibal? And…what would you do if a whale bit off your leg?

And finally…which would you rather do? Sleep with a cannibal, have your leg bitten off, or read Moby Dick?

29 Responses to ““A Whale of a Tale to Tell You–A Tale of a Tail or Two””

  1. Betsy Says:

    Three classics that come to mind are “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “Diary of Anne Frank” and “Pride and Prejudice”…

    To be honest, I’m not much of a ‘reader’–and would prefer to see the movie (which may or may not be accurate). How about Gone with the Wind?? Is that considered a classic??? I love the movie.

    Don’t want a whale to bite off my leg–or any part of me, thank you very much!!!! AND—I’d probably choose to read Moby Dick than to sleep with a cannibal!!!! ha ha

  2. Sharon Says:

    What an easy question–sleep with a cannibal, of course. Have already zzzzz’d my way through Moby Dick decades ago. What else would an English major be doing?

    As to what “classics” you should read, I would hesitate long and hard before recommending anything. This is the best friggin’ book report I have ever read in my entire life, and I happen to believe that Tom’s pretty erudite, too. I know people who have supposedly read everything worth reading who can’t hold a candle to you! Will have to give that some thought, though. I’ll be willing to wager that whatever I come up with, you’ve already read.

  3. Judy Says:

    I, too, tried to read Moby Dick years ago and never made it to the end of the book. I would rather not do any of the three things mentioned in your question. I did read some of the classics but not many and they did not make any big impressions on me. I love reading biographies and you know I like books about Kentucky. I am not much of a fiction reader.
    I think we learn more if we choose what appeals to us because then we tend to remember what we read. I love what Mark Twain said and it is probably very true.

  4. eemilla Says:

    I don’t know about “classics” because I really didn’t like very many of the books that frequent required reading lists (although Moby Dick never appeared there), and I have tried to read War and Peace no less than three unsuccessful times! Some of my favorite books (I have read them more than once) are:
    Paradise Toni Morrision
    Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte
    The Cancer Journals Audre Lourde

    I found this <a href=”http://eemilla.wordpress.com/2008/08/11/american-reading-habits/”book list last summer, and it seems to contain a fair number of “classics”.

    Your writing is wonderful, and I think good writing comes from giving of yourself and truly caring about the topic, which you just cannot be taught.

    Bonus: Your brief highlights some entertaining bits, so I might actually prefer to read about the white whale.

  5. june Says:

    I read Moby Dick a long time ago…I think it was one of my required books for English Lit class. Good story, but wouldn’t want to read it again!

  6. wesleyjeanne Says:

    I’ve read quite a few of the “classics”, including ol’ Moby there. I still feel there are tons of classics I have not read and maybe should. I personally had/have a very strong dislike for Melville in general (if you’re not a fan of Moby Dick, please don’t read Billy Bud), although maybe if I revisited him now I might have more of an appreciation for him. Maybe not, though.

    The movie for Moby Dick is darn good, though–the Gregory Peck version of course being the best, but the Patrick Stewart version isn’t too bad.

    As far as recommendations, I have favorites, but, as I said before, I feel like my list is probably sorely lacking.

    Here are some of my favorites: To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the best books of all time. Seriously.
    Anything by John Steinbeck, but especially Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row and it’s follow-up, Sweet Thursday, East of Eden, and Wayward Bus.
    Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. This is one of those big thick books that you can be proud of having read by the sheer number of pages, but it is also a beautiful story of redemption and morality. I loved it.
    Great Expectations–nutty Dickens, kooky Dickens characters.
    Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte–the original Harlequin Romance–the one that defines all romance novels. I read crticial scenes over and over and over.
    Pride and Prejudice–Jane Austen. Love that Mr. Darcy. Although the kissing and romantic resolution happen in kind of an anticlimactic way, sort of off-screen. But the Elizabeth Bennett’s father totally cracks me up. I just love him.
    I read Anna Karenina a long time ago, and although it seems people really really love that one, I don’t remember thinking it all that great. (Of course, reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog made me want to revisit it.)

    I’m sure there are others, but that’s all that come to mind.

    I love your description of Moby Dick. Very funny. You and Tom definitely need to rent the movie–you both will like it better than the book.

  7. wesleyjeanne Says:

    Oh, and you might want to try reading Ahab’s Wife, by Dalva Sobel.

    It’s an interesting take on Melville, imagining Captain Ahab as married and what his wife might be like.

    Warning: parts of that book bugged me for two reasons:
    1) the Haven Kinnel syndrome we’ve discussed before–and what you’re experiencing with Hedgehog
    2) something I call the Forrest Gump syndrome–this one character encounters a number of famous people and events of the time period in kind of an unlikely and unbelievable way

    If you can get beyond those elements, the story is actually pretty enjoyable.

  8. Ariel Says:

    Hahahahaha! This is so hilarious. Definitely rather have my leg bitten off than read Moby Dick, and I assume you would too. 😀 I agree with Sharon; definitely the best book report ever. I don’t think Daddy was destined to read it. Rather, Moby Dick was destined for the landfill where it belonged and would have been happy. The “soliloquizer” and cannibal vs. Christian passages are great, and the “damp, drizzly November in my soul” and “pausing before coffin warehouses and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet” has the be the first occurence of emo, angst literature ever. What does that mean, anyway? It’s pretty ridiculous. Anyway, this was insanely funny.

    PS: You should read “Catcher in the Rye” for sure, and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which you might have done already. Catherine says you should read “Gulliver’s Travels” and “Emma” by Jane Eyre. And the Complete Works of Edgar Allen Poe. I’m not so sure about that one myself. That makes Catherine an emo kid. I don’t think Edgar Allen Poe is much better than Moby Dick. Both will drive you mad. Nevermore!

  9. Ariel Says:

    Sorry about that Jane Eyre part. That’s definitely the title of a book, not the name of an author. haha.

  10. Ariel Says:

    PS. Catherine is going to probably write that I am a goober, but don’t believe her. She is the goober in this room.

  11. Catherine Says:

    Hello Ariel’s Mom!

    Okay first of all, Ariel is a goober and I am NOT an emo kid! Well, no I take that back. First of all should be I found your post really fun 🙂 And I have to say that I would read Moby Dick instead of getting my leg chomped off or sleeping witha cannibal. I’ve actually been meaning to read that book for some time now, but I haven’t gotten a chance.

    Now secondly, is the fact that I’m not an emo kid.

    Third, Edgar Allan Poe, which Ariel spelled wrong (teehee), is totally awesome and I would strongly suggest any and all of his works. And also Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Bronte. That’s a really good one! Oohh, and also The Great Gatsby, too. And Gulliver’s Travels. I can’t really think of anything else right now, but when I do I’ll let you know. 🙂

  12. Catherine Says:

    Ariel is being mean to me 😦 make her stop.

  13. Ariel Says:

    I’m really nice. 🙂 Catherine is lying. Don’t listen to her. And don’t be fooled. Lots of nice emo kids wear pink and listen to Christian rock like she does. 😀

  14. Sharon Says:

    “Emo kid.” Well cripe, you learn something new every day. Had to google it. Thanks, ladies.

  15. chris Says:

    Best book report ever!!! Who needs a formal education, you two are wise enough. Rather than classics, which are OK, I’d recommend contemporary writers like Toni Morrison or Alice Walker. I’ve lived in the country all my adult life and subscribe to the “New Yorker” to keep up my city sophisticate side. I’m fooling no one but it feeds something in me. Your writing covers all the classic topics and satisfies completely.

  16. Pat Says:

    This has to be one of the funniest posts I’ve ever read anywhere… I guffawed out loud more than once.

    As far as the classics go, I’ve rarely enjoyed them . Most were a struggle rather than a pleasure to read. Did love “To Kill A Mockingbird” and all the Steinbeck books Wesley listed as well as “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”. Our son-in-law gave me “Anna Karenina” for Christmas and said I will love it…haven’t read it yet.

    As far as answering your question…can’t decide between the cannibal and the leg but definitely not Moby Dick.

  17. pictureperfectcooking Says:

    I have to agree also. Many classics that we are forced to read for education are very hard to finish. I don’t know if it is the style of writing or the fact that we are usually kids when we have to read them. I love to read and there are a few “classics” that I have enjoyed; anything by Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters. I really enjoyed “To Kill a Mockingbird” and also, surprisingly, “Lord of the Flies” and “The Red Badge of Courage”. As far as contemporary literature, my all-time favorite author is Maeve Binchy. Her stories set in Ireland touch my heart in a way that most writers do not.

  18. Benjamin Says:

    Hey, Mommy–that was totally hilarious. I laughed out loud several times also!

    First of all, there’s nothing wrong with feeling like “methodically knocking people’s hats off,” although it is amusing to try to discern any real “method” in the act.

    Second, methinks Melville got “11 o’clock Syndrome” with the whole soliloquy run-on sentence. Haha…

    If a whale bit off my leg, I would wonder how the hell he did it (seeing as whales don’t have teeth). I would rather have my leg bit off, out of those three options. If I slept with a cannibal, he would probably bite off my leg anyhow, and I would have the societal stigma of having slept with a cannibal. And reading Moby Dick? Life is too short!!!

  19. Benjamin Says:

    Oh, and I highly suggest any Hemingway, especially “The Sun Also Rises.” He is very terse (no soliquy here) and he is a good writer. Also, read C.S. Lewis’ science fiction trilogy. And Ron Rash’s new novel “Serena” is out.

  20. Jeff Says:

    I’ve always preferred non-fiction – don’t know why that should be. I struggled to read Great Expectations (Dickens) years ago and couldn’t get through it – it was soooo gloomy and depressing. Years later, I found out that it dealt with an important historical event, the name of which escapes me. Not that that would make me pick up the book and try it again! I’m not so sure that reading “classics” improves ones writing – would reading James Joyce or William Faulkner improve your writing? I agree with Mark Twain and also have to say that I’ve never read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, either. So there!! But I have read Treasure Island. Kidnapped and The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson, Robinson Crusoe, and Robin Hood (the illustrations by N.C. Wyeth are outstanding!). I read The Yearling and South Moon Under, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, when I was a kid and re-read The Yearling within the last 10 years. Now, there is a good book – I highly recommend that one!

    Here is a list of “classics” that I think is pretty good – I find that I have read a number of those on the list (more than I expected!):


    I say read what appeals to you and don’t force yourself to read something just because an “expert” says that you should read it.

  21. Going Crunchy Says:

    Oh, how funny. Beth, I was coming to your site to tell you to please stop by the Blogging Bookworm (www.beabookworm.blogspot.com) I just put up a review of a book that I thought you would truly, truly fall in love with. Go find Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray – and tell me what you think! I LOVE this book.

    Moby Dick – you are honestly a better woman that I. Despite my college education – and having it probably be required somewhere – I never made it through Moby Dick.

    A few classics I loved? Paradise Lost, To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Call of the Wild, any book by Pearl S. Buck, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. I love stories that have some meat to them, and ones that transport me into the story.

    I’d much rather be with the sober cannibal – but hope he’s already had dinner.

  22. selzach Says:

    I never could get through Moby Dick. It was one of the few books that I bought the Cliff Notes for.

    A few of my favorite classics are Jane Eyre, The Scarlet Letter, and The Count of Monte Cristo ( l-o-n-g but so worth it. The story is engrossing).

    I love Barbara Kingsolver. I’ve reread Prodigal Summer several times. The Earthsea books by Ursula K. LeGuin are great, too. I’m not a fan of the fantasy genre, but her characters, especially the female ones, come to life.

  23. Shannon Says:

    Oooooooo – I also love the Earth’s Children Series. Not a classic, but should be one day. Well researched historical fiction. Hot paleolithic love scenes too.

  24. Debi Kelly Van Cleave Says:

    I already sleep with a cannibal. Kurt says he’s going to eat me up. (We’re still in love.)

    I’ve quit trying to force myself to read books that are boring. Classics or not. Sometimes I wonder if some of them get more credit than they deserve and people brag about reading them because they think it’ll show they’re smart. Life is too short and there are too many other books I’m trying to squeeze in.

    This is new for me–quitting them if they’re no good. Usually I trudge through because I think it’s good for me like taking my vitamins. But the other day I put down a book that was beautifully written. However, I wasn’t itching to get back to it every time I put it down. I completely forgot about it. So I gave up and started something else. I’ve decided I not only want great literary writing, but I want something that excites me, that I am dying to get back to. A good story. A page-turner. Basically, I want it all. And there’s so much out there, it’s possible to get it.

    Some classics that I’d recommend have already been mentioned but I’ll say it again. Here’s my list:

    To Kill a Mockingbird
    The Diary of Anne Frank
    Animal Farm
    A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
    My Friend Flicka
    The Lord of the Flies (I just took this out of the library for Kelly.)

    I don’t know if these would be considered classics because they are not that old, (are classics supposed to be old?) but if they’re not, they will be:

    The Handmaid’s Tale
    Sophie’s Choice


  25. colleen Says:

    My good friend Alwyn, a poet and environmental activist and mentor, has implored me to read this book (“the” book) and she’s always reminding me of the stuff I missed with my blue collar background, although she admits to also being jealous of it at times. She also writes long sentences as the one I just tried.

    I am intrigued by the writing style, as you are. I remember reading “Are you Somebody” (Nula ” Failin) and being struck by her unorthodox writing style. It was reading this book that gave me the courage to put out the Jim and Dan Stories. I was thinking if she can write this way and get published, I can write too. It’s really all about voice and being understood.

  26. colleen Says:

    PS I’m glad to have read some classics in high school, Of Mice and Men, Great Expectations, Shakespeare etc but I don’t seek them out now. After high school I read a lot of Vonnegut, science and non fiction.

  27. Margie Says:

    I read aloud all the Children’s Classics when the kids were little. It kept them quiet in the car.

  28. CountryDreaming Says:

    Ah, Moby Dick! Thanks to reading that book, I set an artificial Christmas tree on fire. You see, in order to “smell the ocean” while reading the book, the better to put myself in the mood, I lit a purple rain-scented candle and happened to set it underneath a small coffee-table Christmas tree. Well, the flame didn’t even have to touch the lowest branch for the tree to start going up in smoke and turning black! So yeah, reading Moby Dick was quite an adventure!

  29. blueridgebluecollargirl Says:

    Many thanks to all who commented and to those who recommended favorite books. I was pleasantly surprised to see how many classics I have read, yet painfully aware of how many I have yet to read. So…I’d better get cracking! Thanks again.

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