‘“Moby-Dick” is not a novel. It’s barely a book at all. It’s more an act of transference, of ideas and evocations hung around the vast and unknowable shape of the whale, an extended musing on the strange meeting of human history and natural history. It is, above all, a sui-generis creation, one that came into the world as an unnatural, immaculate conception …
In an age of uncertain faith, then as now, “Moby-Dick” resembles a religious tract, an alternative testament. Little wonder that one of its early set-pieces is Father Mapple’s fire-and-brimstone sermon from the prow-shaped pulpit in the Seamen’s Bethel, New Bedford, or that Philbrick takes the title for his own first chapter, “The Gospels in This Century,” from Melville’s wry and rather Wildean remark on the unsalability of his work: “Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.” As he told Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have written a wicked book, and I feel as spotless as the lamb.”
When I finally began reading “Moby-Dick” (had I wasted my time before then?), I found I couldn’t put it down. I’d carry about with me a tiny, Oxford World Classics edition, anonymously bound in blue cloth, to be studied chapter by chapter, like the Bible or the Koran, as I sat on the Tube or on an airplane, or in the early hours of the morning. As Philbrick exhorts his readers, ” ‘Moby-Dick’ is a long book, and time is short. Even a sentence, a mere phrase will do.”
Much of the impact of Melville’s book on any fierce new convert is implicit in that sense of time travel. Sometimes I read it and I feel like I’m going backward, fast. It reads like something that was written before books were invented, yet it is utterly modern—pre-postmodern, perhaps. It is part of its own prediction, as if it and its characters had been there all along, and had only been waiting to be written. Just as in the real New Bedford’s Bethel a pulpit-prow had to be built, in the nineteen-sixties, because so many visitors expected to find one there; and, just as Melville wrote vividly of Nantucket, an island that he had yet to visit, much of “Moby-Dick” is conjured out of the air and the sea’.
– Philip Hoare, What “Moby-Dick” Means to Me