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Returning to the sea

Yes, it’s meandering and dense, and it conquers many readers who arrive with good intentions. But we keep coming back to the imposing tale of the elusive white whale. Nathaniel Philbrick, who wrote “Why Read Moby-Dick,” has called the Herman Melville classic “about as close to anything we have of an American Bible. It’s as much a repository as it is the story of a whaling voyage and in there is just so much of what makes America American.’’

As the New Bedford Whaling Museum kicks off its 24th annual “Moby-Dick’’ readathon Friday evening, here are some of Metro Minute’s favorite passages from the 1851 masterwork.


The sea beckons Ishmael: “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.

Ishmael muses, at the Spouter Inn: “Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.’’

Captain Ahab’s obsession: “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!”

The power of the ocean: “The first boat we read of, floated on an ocean, that with Portuguese vengeance had whelmed a whole world without leaving so much as a widow. That same ocean rolls now; that same ocean destroyed the wrecked ships of last year. Yea, foolish mortals, Noah’s flood is not yet subsided; two thirds of the fair world it yet covers.”


A sense of place: “Queequeg was a native of Kokovoko, an island far away to the West and South. It is not down in any map; true places never are.”

Ahab’s weary soul: “Oh! time was, when as the sunrise nobly spurred me, so the sunset soothed. No more. This lovely light, it lights not me; all loveliness is anguish to me, since I can ne’er enjoy. Gifted with the high perception, I lack the low, enjoying power; damned, most subtly and most malignantly! Damned in the midst of Paradise!”

The roiling within: “Consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life.’’

Sources: Wisconsin Public Radio; The New York Times