October 20, 2011


Why Read “Moby-Dick”? By Nathaniel Philbrick. Viking. $25.

Love at First Bark: How Saving a Dog Can Sometimes Help You Save Yourself. By Julie Klam. Riverhead. $22.95.

     The influence of animals on our lives – both real animals and fictional ones – can scarcely be underestimated. Both these books deal with that influence, but from very different, if not quite diametrically opposed, perspectives. The answer to the question posed by the title of Nathaniel Philbrick’s book is one that high-school students have heard for many years: “Because it is a GREAT BOOK and a MAJOR AMERICAN NOVEL with EXTREMELY IMPORTANT THINGS TO SAY.” Or words to that effect (students can hear the capital letters). It would be nice to report that Philbrick, author of In the Heart of the Sea (which dealt with the real-life incident that inspired Moby-Dick), has an entirely different answer to the question. But unfortunately, he gives the exact same answer that teachers have been offering for so many years – just at greater length (although at barely 140 pages, his book still qualifies as mercifully short, and much shorter than Melville’s). Really, what Philbrick tells readers is why he reads and re-reads Moby-Dick, not why they should. His reasons turn out to reflect the book’s own structure, meandering from narrative to background discussions relating to whaling. Thus, Philbrick writes, “To kindle a fire on an oil-soaked wooden ship was risky at best, but it was the only way to boil the blubber into oil. …’Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me,’ Ishmael advises. ‘There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.’” Philbrick devotes a chapter to the well-known friendship between Melville and another noted American author: “As it turns out, Melville’s incomparable ability to humanize evil came from a most unlikely, late-breaking source: a shy, soft-spoken writer named Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Melville didn’t meet until he was almost done with the first draft. The story of their friendship and especially the letters from Melville that it produced are reason enough to read Moby-Dick, a novel that is as much about the microclimates of intimate human relations as it is about the great, uncontrollable gales that push and pull all of us.” Now, that is good writing, from an academic point of view, and certainly helps explain why academics cherish Moby-Dick. But it does nothing to indicate to people in general – outside the insular academic environment – why the novel is worth their time and mental effort. It is not an easy book, being as filled with digressions as with the basic story (although Philbrick would argue, and does, that these are not really digressions but integral parts of a larger canvas than the pursuit-of-the-White-Whale theme). Melville’s 19th-century language is not simple, especially for 21st-century readers, and his book’s themes need to be teased out and absorbed. “The sheer momentum of the novel is a wonder to behold,” Philbrick opines, “barreling us along, in spite of all the divergences, toward the White Whale.” Generations of students who have read Moby-Dick under greater or lesser duress may well beg to differ. Philbrick comes up with some attractive titles for his short chapters, such as “Pulling Dictatorship Out of a Hat” and “Desperado Philosophy.” And he makes interesting and erudite arguments about the importance to him of reading Moby-Dick. But anyone with an interest in Melville’s work, or a memory of reading it in less-than-pleasant circumstances in the past, who is hoping that Philbrick will provide cogent and accessible reasons to read or re-read the novel, will be disappointed to find only the usual argument about this being a great book, a major American novel with extremely important things to say. People who see Moby-Dick that way do not need Philbrick: they are reading and re-reading the book already.

     If animal fiction and animal fact intertwine in the complexities of Melville – and they do – then Love at First Bark offers a far simpler and more accessible animal-focused book. This one takes place in the real world, involves real animals and real people, and is designed from the start to be endearing. It is Julie Klam’s sequel to You Had Me at Woof, and reads a bit like a hodgepodge of things that she didn’t quite get into the earlier book. The three sections focus on three dog rescues in which Klam was involved. One dog is Morris, an abandoned pit bull that Klam and her husband found at a time when their relationship was strained. Klam interweaves the story of the dog, which had been abused (cigarette burns on its paws, for example) and was of a breed generally considered unadoptable or at least very difficult to adopt, with the story of the difference that this particular rescue made in her marriage. The connections are a little too facile to be fully believable – they may be true, but they don’t always sound true – but readers looking for emotional uplift will find it here. Or they will find it in the story of Clementine, a Boston terrier with fecal incontinence, whose fostering Klam says she took on as a challenge. Clementine turned out to have a fatal neurological disease – and lived with Klam the rest of her life. The third section, set in New Orleans, is primarily about a feral dog that rescuers named Jarhead because it had gotten its head stuck in a pickle jar. Klam joined the attempt (ultimately successful) to catch the dog and save its life, but she makes much of the fact that this Louisiana rescue was quite different from the New York City ones to which she has become accustomed. The three stories are pleasant enough, each heartwarming in its way, and those who enjoyed the style of Klam’s earlier book will like this one as well. Others may find it too cutesy, as when a photographer comments on Clementine’s weight: “Fat? Oh. My. God. Clemmie went from skin and bones to being a tub without my realizing it. I looked at her the way my mother looked at me when I came home from freshman year: Oops!” Klam’s previous book had a more interesting “hook” than this one does, being about how it is possible to have a relationship and a child and still be missing a certain something that a dog (or, in Klam’s case, four dogs) can provide. Love at First Bark is more ordinary – pleasant enough in its way, but nothing to make readers want to howl with enjoyment.

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