Of Digressions and Self-Discipline


I’m one of those rare few who would actually read Moby Dick again.

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Few people have read the 900 page book. And of the few who have, most seem to bemoan being forced to read it in literature class.

The issue isn’t length. The Count of Monte Cristo is 1,400 pages long yet it felt like a mere 150 page thriller to me because it moved so quickly and held my attention so tightly and in contrast, I have read books actually 150 pages in length that felt like 1,400 page tomes. It depends on the book’s internal pacing and content-interest.

The complaints against Moby Dick boil down to this:

  • The book has too many digressions
  • The book isn’t all about Ahab chasing Moby-Dick like I thought it was supposed to be

There are actually websites and blog posts out there giving you a guide to which chapters to skip for a more streamlined read. 15 pages on whale classification is deemed unnecessary and distracting to the story.

Admittedly, the book did often drag for me. Some days I would zip through 30-50 pages and other days slog through only a half dozen. I gave myself rewards along the way, if I reached X number of pages I could take a break and enjoy a zippy adventure novel then come to back to it. I didn’t skip anything though I was tempted to. The whale classification fascinated me alright but whale physiognomy? –Come on, that’s since been disproven by science! It’s not EVEN a legitimate field of study!! But I kept to my policy of reading everything.

This is perhaps one of the side effects of being raised under systematic, expositional preaching: nothing gets skipped. Not a preface, not a forward, not an introduction, not a dedication, not an author’s note, not a preface, not an epilogue, not 20 pages on whale anatomy–nothing is left unread. For me, this principle has gotten applied to all literature.

And you know what? Something really cool happened when I read everything of Moby Dick together. I didn’t appreciate all those seemingly red herrings by themselves but together they formed a more cohesive picture than I would have gotten otherwise.

It is like reading the genealogies of the Old Testament. By themselves, they don’t seem to be of much account but taken in context, joined with history on either end, explained and linked to the redemptive chain, they take on a significance that leaves the larger narrative lacking if it is excluded.

I draw this parallel with the Bible because, though the Bible is the holy, inspired, infallible Word of God, it is also the greatest and most enduring piece of literature, the skill of its pages recognized even by seculars.

Sometimes–oftentimes–we need to strive towards being more patient readers and discipline ourselves to sit through something longer and deeper than a three minute YouTube video. We should do it with our Bibles, we should do it with our novels.

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In the most general sense, Moby Dick is about whaling and everything surrounding that lifestyle. By the end of the book I almost felt that being a sailor on a whale boat was something in my own history. It became real–not suddenly, but slowly–page by page, “digression” by “digression”. There was a roundness to every event because of the lengthy monologues on whales. “Get him, get him, come on, come on!” I silently cheered when the crew was in wild pursuit of a whale. I could feel the adrenaline rushing in my own veins, I could smell the salty sea breeze–even feel the rocking of the small boats. I could imagine nothing more thrilling than hunting a whale. But when that harpoon struck and the whale oozed blood in the water, fought ferociously for life and at long-last rolled belly-up in the water, I felt something akin to nausea wash over me. That beautiful, magnificent beast was dead now. Because of the totality of the book’s narration on whales, there was sadness mixed with joy.

So don’t skip! You may “follow the plot just fine” but you are missing out on something far less tangible and far more nuanced when you do. It is more work to follow Herman Melville (or another verbose author with a grandiose plan) down his many winding paths. It takes discipline, like reading through the Book of Numbers or Leviticus, but you will be rewarded if you persevere.


(And if you think Herman Melville’s digressions are tedious, try Victor Hugo’s in Les Miserables–we’re talking 70 pages describing just the bishop and all his political views and eccentricities! Mr. Gene Edward Veith has an excellent review on the book here and also discusses the topic of persevering through the seeming “rabbit-trails” and the grand picture they paint when taken together.)

*image public domain

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12 thoughts on “Of Digressions and Self-Discipline

  1. Great reminders, Emily!

    This is why real life is a story even better than a book that must at some point end–all the little “detours” we think we’re experiencing, all the mundane twists of our personal plot, the dozens of sudden climaxes that make our lives less like a novel and more like a seemingly-endless series of episodes.

    As we journey, though, we don’t have the luxury of reading book reviews about our life’s theme, reading ahead to the way the cards fall in the end. What we think are side plots may actually be the things that mean the most in eternity…and even those sinuous detours bring that “roundness” you mentioned, as God crafts a unique story.

    Maybe our lives are like you said, too, as Christians grow and take on the life of Christ: “It [becomes] real–not suddenly, but slowly–page by page, “digression” by ‘digression’.”

    Maybe we’re like the Velveteen Rabbit, becoming more alive as the story unfolds.

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  2. Good thoughts. I skipped Moby Dick in high school, choosing a less well known book by Melville. But, I did slog my way through Last of the Mohicans and found it to be well worth the struggle to read. I loved Les Miserables but did read the abridged version. Maybe someday I’ll go back and try it in all it’s grandness. The Count of Monte Cristo is still on of my all time favorites. I appreciate how you tied this in with reading the scriptures. Great insight!

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  3. Still trying to slog through Les Mis in its entirety. I am a bit skeptical about those 400 chapters (slight exaggeration) on the nunnery being all that relevant, but periodically I pick it back up….And, I should probably not add my 2 cents here about LOTR since I might not be quite as big a fanatic. Moby Dick will have to wait for another decade I’m afraid – thanks for the warning.

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  4. Pingback: Six Month Anniversary | Living In Heavens shadow

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