ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Today's installment of our summer series, You Must Read This, comes from British author Rebecca Stott. She says summer can be the perfect time for picking up something a bit more challenging. And she's always loved the tale about a great white whale.
REBECCA STOTT: I've been re-reading "Moby-Dick" for years since I first discovered it in my 20s. And I still don't know quite what it is. There's nothing like it in the history of literature, except, perhaps, Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy," with its eccentric characters, puns, obsessions, and tricks.
Yes, of course, many people know what "Moby-Dick" is about. It is a tale of the voyage of the Pequod and the obsessive, vengeful quest of its captain, Ahab, to kill the white whale, Moby-Dick. But what is it?
It is a creature quite unto itself. A great library of learning contained within the belly of a whale, a key to all mythologies, a joke, a quest, a witch hunt, a parable, a water eclogue, a warning against the dangers of monomania and what we might call fundamentalism.
The book is a cauldron into which Melville, demented alchemist, tipped everything that fascinated him: whale law, whale statistics, meditations on love, friendship, dreams, his own conversations with books by writers from Carlyle to Rousseau, Shakespeare and Goethe. Melville described it as the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ship's cables and houses. A polar wind blows through it and birds of prey hover over it.
Whilst I may have fallen for the eroticized audacity of "Moby-Dick" for the briny adrenaline rush of its quest, now it seems to provoke more philosophically questions about, for instance, the nature of truth. For "Moby-Dick" refuses, bravely, both the idea of human perfectibility and the notion that truth can be either absolute or reachable.
It is not for nothing that the first chapter in which we meet Ishmael, Ahab's attendant shadow, is beautifully entitled "Loomings." I try in my own stories to capture the elusiveness of truth by conjuring figures who exist in the interstices of history, who move between past and present, who can only ever be seen on the edges of vision.
I keep the novel to hand when I'm writing and I reach for it whenever my nerve fails me, because Melville had nerve as well as mad genius, and his daring as evident on every page.
"Moby-Dick" is also, of course, a warning against the consequences of fundamentalism and monomania or in any form, as Salman Rushdie has argued in a passionate essay against fundamentalism called "Is Nothing Sacred?" He calls "Moby-Dick" a very modern parable. Ahab, gripped by his possession, perishes. Those who worship the whale for pursuit is a form of worship, perished by the whale. Some of today's warmongers and dictators might learn something about the dangers of a certain kind of messianic zeal from this marvelous book.
SIEGEL: Rebecca Stott is the author "Ghostwalk." She lives in Cambridge, England. You'll find an excerpt from "Moby-Dick," along with more You Must Read This recommendations at npr.org/summerbooks.