One hundred and nine times, the word “Leviathan” appears in the book Moby Dick. This is a particularly long and dramatic approach to the word “whale,” but you will find Moby Dick is a particularly long and dramatic approach to a story that at its core is pretty damn simple.
And the skeleton of said story is:
A diverse crew of men go whaling. Only once out to sea do they realize their captain is hell bent on hunting down one whale in particular. They find the whale and everyone but the narrator dies.
Can you make a lengthy novel out of such an adventure?
Yes, of course!
There are, obviously, other whales to hunt down, and plenty of other events which take place on the ship, the Pequod, to detail. There are even psychological examinations of this men which may be commented upon by the narrator.
Moby Dick is 206,052 words long.
Two hundred thousand and fifty fucking two words.
Why is it so long? How can that be possible with such a straightforward premise?
Because this bitch is an encyclopedic novel.
Ishmael, the narrator, feels every speck of minutia involving whales and whaling processes deserves a chapter’s worth of explanation.
Well, that could be important, you might think. I could use a refresher chapter on basic sperm whale anatomy.
Well, you get about 60 chapters on whale anatomy.
You get a head chapter. You get a fin chapter. You get a tail chapter. You get a skeleton chapter. You get a fucking fossil chapter. And you get chapters about other kinds of whales. And you get a chapter about porpoises.
You also get a chapter about whiteness. Like… the color white.
By the time you get done with this book, you probably are qualified to be a marine biologist in the year 1851. You can also probably build a ship.
Oh, and apparently whalers don’t need to do things like breathe, since every time one of them talks, he does so for a solid 400+ words.
And whaleboat sea captains? When they do opt to speak, it’s a monologue of Shakespearean proportion and style.
I understand there were less alternatives to reading in the 1850s. When a person wanted to unwind, they couldn’t watch television, scroll through their Facebook feeds, or play video games. Reading was basically it for introverted entertainment. Even so, dude.
This book has one of the most celebrated opening lines in the history of novels: “Call me Ishmael.”
By even (especially?) modern standards, this is a perfect opening. But just about everything else about Moby Dick is the antithesis of what you’re told to do when you want to write a novel in this day and age.
Pretty much immediately it goes into tirades and explanations. Info dumps and excessive wordiness. Today’s editor would run out of red ink removing words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters.
I squirmed while trying to read it. Every time Herman Melville broke away from the story to explain some other thing, I thought, oh no. Here we go down the proverbial rabbit hole of information.
But other times, I was immersed in the story. Fascinated by the details.
And you know what?
I learned so much!
I actually feel more educated after having read this book. Smarter about a certain topic. Accomplished. It was well worth every mind numbing explanation.
Yes, people are busier now. Yes, people have more options for entertainment. Yes, time is money. Yes, the pressure is on editors to select the most profitable books. Yes, you do have just a few sentences to hook a reader and turn them into a buyer.
But what if we overlook the next Moby Dick in the process?
Or worse, never write it?