Desert Island Bookworm Takes on a Whale of a Tale

Herman Melville produces magic with English that almost no one else can

  • Friday, December 4, 2020 5:20pm
  • Arts
Phil Clapham

Phil Clapham

By Phil Clapham

For The Beachcomber

Which books would you take to a desert island?

I’m a whale biologist by trade.

After stumbling into the profession by accident, I’ve spent the last four decades hanging out with the largest critters on the planet. Although I’ve worked with most species at one time or another, my first love has always been humpbacks. I can relate to humpback whales, and after 40 years with them, I think, probably foolishly, that I know them pretty well (by contrast, I’ve spent the same amount of time around fin whales — the second largest species after the blue — and I still don’t have the vaguest idea of what goes on inside a fin whale’s head).

I have also spent some time around sperm whales, which are so bizarre and unlike anything else on the planet that it wouldn’t entirely surprise me if they turned out to have been put here by space aliens as some kind of grand cosmic joke. With this background, it’s not surprising that “Moby Dick” is on my desert island list.

Herman Melville published “Moby Dick” in 1851. The novel that is today regarded as one of the greatest achievements in American literature was, at the time it appeared, a total flop. Unlike his two wildly successful previous novels, “Typee” and “Omoo,” “Moby Dick” was out of print by the time Melville died in 1891, and it was reprinted in 1855 only because a fire at the publisher’s warehouse destroyed unsold copies of the first edition. It was not until the 1920s that “Moby Dick” was resurrected and became the subject of critical acclaim.

It’s not difficult to see why the novel was panned.

Organizationally, it’s a hot mess, full of tangents and digressions. Many pages are occupied with Melville’s meanderings regarding everything from paintings of whales to their scientific classification, and the likelihood that Jonah was swallowed by one. The story lurches to and fro until eventually it rights itself and proceeds rather more directly towards its conclusion. A modern editor confronted with the manuscript would have a field day with it.

“Moby Dick” does contain a fascinating account of the business of whaling as practiced in the 19th century. Melville worked in whaling at a time well before the factory ship, the steam engine and the explosive harpoon revolutionized the industry.

Whales were pursued through the power of wind in canvas, or the strength of men’s arms at the oars, and they were killed by harpooners who had to almost literally jump onto their backs to inflict the fatal blow. Death of the crew during the chase was not uncommon. Indeed, the story of the Nantucket whaler Essex, which was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale in the Pacific — leading to cannibalism among the surviving crew — was the basis for “Moby Dick” (read Nathaniel Philbrick’s excellent “In the Heart of the Sea.”)

Despite its flaws, “Moby Dick” is indisputably a great novel. But the reason I would take it to a desert island is not so much for the story, as brilliant as it is, but for the language. For Melville produces magic with English that almost no one else can; the only equivalent, for me, is Shakespeare. Here he is describing a sunset on a calm sea (with a recently caught whale):

“It was far down the afternoon… and floating in the lovely sunset sea and sky, sun and whale stilly died together; then, such a sweetness and such plaintiveness, such inwreathing orisons curled up in that rosy air, that it almost seemed as if, far over from the deep green convent valleys of the Manilla isles, the Spanish land-breeze, wantonly turned sailor, had gone to sea, freighted with these vesper hymns.”

The novel is full of glorious language like this, and it’s worth wading through some of Melville’s ramblings to find it.

Melville certainly knew his whales, and his linguistic brilliance often beautifully highlights the more remarkable characteristics of these fascinating creatures. He knew, for example, that sperm whales dive deeper than any other large whale, and he penned a wonderful description of this ability. Here is Ahab, gazing at the head of a dead whale:

“That head, on which the upper sun now gleams, has moved amid the world’s foundations. Where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot; where in her murderous hold this frigate Earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned; there in that awful water land, there was thy most familiar home.”

Melville was also keenly aware of the damage wrought on whale populations by the industry, even before it became mechanized.

”The point is,” he wrote, “whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.”

Which books would you take to a desert island, and why? Email me at

Phil Clapham is a retired whale biologist who lives on Maury Island.

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