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How to Read Moby Dick

               a guide for first-time readers              

Advice for the Reader

Read for yourself. 
Think for yourself. 
Be intellectually honest. 
Meet Melville one-on-one.

Moby Dick is considered one of America's great novels, and as one of the "greats," we should not expect it to be especially easy reading. It is not a novel to read with the intention that when we finish, we will have all the answers. In fact, two characteristics of a great novel are that, when we finish it, we have the feeling that it bears re-reading at least in part and we have more questions than answers. Therefore, accept as fact that as you are reading you may not understand every detail, every nuance.

For a first reading, read straight through for the overall intention of the author. Pause on those chapters that you find especially thought provoking or powerfully written. Some chapters are so highly detailed that you will want to read quickly, even skim; for others, read more slowly. The novel has much to think about because we are challenged by the author and because we will want to challenge the author. The goal of this web site is to help you finish the novel by suggesting a somewhat organized approach to your reading (see the left navigation bar). Other suggetions are the following:

  1. Read this Advice page.

  2. Find a place to keep your copy of the novel and your Reader's Log with pen/pencil together in an easily accessible place. Check out options if you do not have a book. Free copies are available. You may want a free audio of the text.
    The Reader's Log may be any type of journal you prefer: a spiral notebook, a yellow pad, or one of the very nice ones available at Barnes and Noble.

  3. View the two videos--first, one produced for the Discovery Channel and second, the History Channel. Together, they give you excellent historical information that helps in visualizing as you read the novel.

  4. Read about the origin of the name Moby Dick and the name of Ahab's ship, the Pequod. Melville tells us both; however, many readers miss one or both as they read.

  5. Begin reading the novel with Section 1 and continue Section by Section. Each section includes thinking and writing questions or observations and a vocabulary list. You may want to preview the section before reading it. See links in left navigation bar. Writing is thinking. Respond in your Reader's Log.

  6. Refer to the Allusions and Quotations pages as you wish. They are categorized by chapter number. They can be useful as a review if you have not read in several days.

  7. If you wish, read the author's biography. You will hear about Melville's life in the two videos as it relates to the novel. The link on the left navigation bar goes to an excellent article at the University of Virginia.

  8. Look over the Activities list and consider two of them that you might like to pursue later--when you are more than half finished with the novel. The reason for considering this now, is to help direct your reading. For instance, if you want to illustrate certain events, then you will want to mark the possibilities. The same applies to research topics or essay topics.

The suggested questions and activities in each Section, hopefully, will help you to think on both the literal level and on the allegorical level. Select those that work for you, or devise your own questions and activities. If you wish to share your ideas, please send them.

Avoid going to the booklets and commercial movies. The booklets (usually yellow/black or red/black covers), found on supermarket shelves, in bookstores, and on the world wide web, spoon feed interpretive opinions of others. If you read the novel, you will have interpretive opinions of your own, which are more reliable and more valid than what someone else can give you. No, you will not decipher all the points of symbolism of which the writer of the notes mentions, nor will you grasp all the subtle conflicts mentioned. You may not decipher or grasp them because they are not there for you or they are not in the novel at all. Frankly, I often question whether the writer of these "notes" has actually read the novel. Sometimes, I recognize one of the movies, but interpreting a movie is different from interpreting a novel. Do not accept intellectual dishonesty.

Avoid watching one of the commercial movies for the same reasons.To produce the movie, someone had to read the novel and decide on the scenes to show and how to show them--that is, their interpretation of them. Some of the movies are excellent--as movies. The Gregory Peck one is my favorite. However, wait until you have completed your reading and thinking about the story, as Melville presents it to you. Then watch one of the movies and evaluate it as a movie production, not as Melville's novel.

Mark your book. Highlight quotations that appeal to you and that mean something to you. Highlight indications of themes, conflicts, philosophical comments--anything that seems to have importance to you or that is simply beautifully written. 

Keep a Reader's Log.  Writing is thinking.  Free write your impressions at the end of each reading section or as you read particular chapters. Include your observations on the positive and the negative, the thought provoking and the tedious. Make note of the chapter and page numbers.

Build a vocabulary list. You have the opportunity with this book to help yourself build a powerful vocabulary. Include chapter and page number. Essential vocabulary words are on the Vocabulary list. Copy it to your desktop and add other words to it if you wish.

Build a significant quotations list. A significant quotation is one that makes us think or feel deeply. We want to explain what it means or how it means. Include chapter and page number. You may want to copy to your desktop the listing of quotations here and add your own to the list. NOTE: Some of the quotations on my list may mean nothing to you. That's O.K. Mark them out if you wish.

Good luck! Haul away!

on the web since 1997

Search the novel by word or phrase

a symbol  for water and sea;  also, a symbol for an active intellect.


Could this be the same Starbuck, first mate of the Pequod?

Moby Dick by Herman Melville:
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©Patricia R. Thompson, TBM Data 1997, 2010.   Last update 06/11/2012.   Email.   LinkedIn. Facebook.