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Iron Men in Wooden Boats - A Library of One's Own

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April 5th, 2011


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08:58 pm - Iron Men in Wooden Boats
As some of you may know, the Capstone course for the English majors my senior year was Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. This scared me off whales (and gin, but that's another story) for about a year, but not before I'd gone to the New Bedford Whaling Museum and purchased Eric Jay Dolin's Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America, because I cannot go anywhere that sells books without buying one. (I also bought a flask. It was pretty sexy.)

I am either over being so over whales, or crazy, because I finally read Dolin's book.

Basically: While Moby-Dick may have good reason to be on Jasper Fforde's "Ten Most Boring Classics" list, whaling is pretty epic and whales are made of awesome.

Leviathan covers some of the history of whaling in the rest of the world, but most of the narrative goes from Captain John Smith's unsuccessful whaling voyage to the Americas in 1614 until the sinking of the Wanderer in 1924. It's a pretty well-rounded book, covering whale biology and what we know of whale evolution (which is apparently not much), the economics of the whaling industry at pretty much all points in time, whaling culture, whale-hunting tools and techniques, the stories of some high-profile wrecks, mutinies and successful voyages, biographic sketches of prominent whalers and whaling families, and snatches of whaling songs. We learn about prominent whaling ports such as Nantucket, New Bedford, San Francisco, and Hawaii, and get to laugh at the English as they repeatedly fail to establish a whaling industry of their own and have to keep buying from us. There are also some stories about women disguising themselves as men and becoming whalemen.

The book also contains two insets full of pictures, which include photographs, line drawings and some advertisements for baleen corsets and spermaceti candle and stuff. It also contains the following disturbing engraving of a beached bull sperm whale:

Jacob Matham's engraving of a beached whale

A lot of stuff about whaling is really not much less disturbing. Leviathan doesn't leave anything out (or if it does, I really don't want to know about it), cheerfully describing the disgusting conditions of whaling vessels and their crewmembers, several horrible and undignified examples of naval discipline, and the effects of various awful diseases (venereal and otherwise) that tended to afflict sailors back in the day.

Overall I found Leviathan to be a very well-researched book and an enjoyable read, and not any choppier than is quite inevitable when covering so many different facets of whaling in under four hundred pages. I would recommend it to anyone who hasn't had to read Moby-Dick anytime recently, particularly since it quotes Melville rather extensively and gives a lot of background on Moby-Dick (including Melville's whaling history and the legends of "Mocha Dick," the albino sperm whale that Moby Dick was based on).

My biggest complaint about this book is that whoever wrote the cover copy and chapter titles is way too fond of alliteration. My second biggest complaint is that it left me really, really curious about what whale meat tastes like, and I have no way of satisfying that curiosity due to the current endangered status of whales.

Verdict: Piracy still more interesting than whaling. Whaling probably almost as crappy and dangerous in real life as piracy, possibly more epic due to the gigantic nature of whales, not quite as easily romanticized for pop culture purposes. (Recent sighting of whales in pop culture: in The Sims Medieval, which Liz recently acquired, one of your character's traits can be "Parents Eaten By Whales." The Sim will be obsessed with whales, and will periodically build up "whale rage" and have to go scream at the sea or go on a whaling voyage to kill some whales.)

( | Scribble in the margins)


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