Toward the end of a flight home from Oakland, a man leans over his wife and says to me, "Jus' wonnerin'. Are you readin' that for school or 'cause you want to?" He's had a few. His wife has a Tami Hoag thriller on her lap.

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"'Cause I want to."

"I was jus' wonnerin'."

"Have you read it?" I ask.

The giveaway is his face—blind-sided, infinite, late to respond. If the answer's yes, why would you pause? It's the face of a person who hasn't read Moby Dick, but knows so much about it (the whale, the one-legged guy, the sentence "Call me Ishmael") that he feels like he's read it. He should have read it at some point, right? He knows all the big themes, doesn't he? He sucks a lot of air into his chest and goes, "Oh, yeah, well, I mean, I read parts of it in school."

There's no reason to embarrass this guy. (Which parts?) Who hasn't played off having read things they haven't read? Especially after having a few? Especially when they already know some of the characters, some of the plot, the setting, and the first sentence? The guilt some people feel over not having read Moby Dick, combined with how much they already know about Moby Dick, combined with how long Moby Dick is—all this conspires to make sure that a lot of people never read Moby Dick. The seriousness of its reputation—and its reputation for being serious, hugely serious, Biblically serious—sends any casual reader who's already got enough stuff to worry about running in the other direction.

Two things pull the boat out from under you if, loaded with expectations, you decide to give Moby Dick a go (I only picked it up because a near-stranger grabbed me by the shoulders and told me to read the chapter "Cetology"): It's incredibly funny, and it knows you don't want to read it. In the fourth sentence, Ishmael lists three sure-fire signs it's time for him to get to sea, and people usually remember the sodden, sad first two (whenever it is "a damp, drizzly November" in his soul and whenever he finds himself "involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses") but almost no one remembers the funny third one (whenever he has to stop himself from "deliberately stepping into the street, and knocking people's hats off"). Two pages on, after describing why he doesn't want to ever be a captain ("I abandon the glory and distinction of such offices to those who like them"), he mentions why he doesn't want to be a cook ("I never fancied broiling fowls—though once broiled, judiciously buttered, and judgmatically salted and peppered, there is no one who will speak more respectfully, not to say reverentially, of a broiled fowl than I will"). Or here he is, 16 chapters later, on being Presbyterian: "I cherish the greatest respect toward everybody's religious obligations, never mind how comical." That's funny.

And doesn't it also seem weirdly relevant to 2007, more relevant than it seems to 1850–51, when Melville wrote that? (Interesting, that date: America was stoked about its independence and hadn't faced the "fratricide" of the Civil War, as the introductory essay in my copy points out—an essay more laborious than the book, with a four-pages-long first paragraph. O, introductory essay! You are part of the problem!) There's other stuff about religious fanatics, and early on Ishmael is imagining how his going to sea ranks with world events, and imagines world events as acts listed on a theater program, himself the "brief interlude and solo" between "more extensive performances." The bill he imagines reads: "Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States." Then, "Whaling Voyage by One Ishmael." Then, "Bloody Battle in Afghanistan." It's hard to deny the feeling that Melville was from the future.

As for the book already knowing that you think it has nothing to do with your life, the ingenious thing about the first chapter is that it insists you're wrong. "If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings toward the ocean with me"—emphasis mine. Then comes the part about how, no matter what else he's doing, if you stand a "man on his legs" and "set his feet a-going," he "will infallibly lead you to water." And the part about how the artist who's trying to paint the "most enchanting bit of romantic landscape" won't succeed unless there's a stream in it. And the part about Niagara: "Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles to see it?" And the part about how everyone feels a "mystical vibration" when, on a boat, they've been told they're out of sight of land. Plus, like Narcissus, we see ourselves in water—"the ungraspable phantom of life."

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Whatever else it's good for, having Moby Dick around gets people to talk to you. Everyone comments. The other night I was with friends at the bar Liberty, and the owner, after taking our order, looked at my book, a slip of paper a fifth of the way in, and said, "Little light reading?" recommended

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