Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: Philip Hoare, The Whale

The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea
Philip Hoare
Ecco, 2010

The book’s original title, “Leviathan”, is more appropriate, if less marketable. Expecting a natural history, I found instead a history of humankind’s obsession with the whale. The book is composed of elegant meandering essays which explore literary history (particularly Melville and Thoreau) along with whaling ports (New Bedford, Nantucket, the Azores) as well as natural history and the business of whaling.

If someone had told me this book was largely a history of the whaling industry, I would have put it back on the shelf. I am grateful for my mistake – and all that I learned by reading. I had no clue what a driving force whaling has been in history or the extent to which the early industrial world was built on the bodies of whales.

As a long-term resident of Japan, I was especially grateful for the detailed and unsparing discussion of whaling in Japan. (Japanese nationalism has made a fetish of whaling, which it claims is an essential part of Japanese culture. The actual sources are more complicated. Whaling was encouraged by McArthur during the Occupation.) May this book be swiftly translated into Japanese!

The book strives to be elegant and literary -- and occasionally tries too hard. I sometimes felt as if I had been trapped at a high class dinner party with far too much silverware and not nearly enough wine. He wants to be WG Sebald – and who can blame him? Although I sometimes rolled my eyes, I didn’t really mind. If the journey is marvelous, a little melodrama from the guide is easily accommodated.

The details he provides are delicious. In a day’s reading I learned that the milk of humpback whales is so rich it resembles cottage cheese, that Moslems believe that the whale that swallowed Jonah is one of ten animals that will enter heaven (I imagine it there, hanging in mid-air, like an exhibit in a museum) and that young Melville lost a job because of his atrocious penmanship.

There are sections that are irresistible, such as a history of sea monsters in the 19th century. The section about the arctic whales, which leads to a discussion of whale life spans – some live more than 200 years – is unexpectedly moving.

In a mania of greed we nearly destroyed the whale. Now we belatedly and halfheartedly attempt preservation. Not surprising, our ignorance has proven remarkably durable. The whales remain mysterious. This book is an elegant ticket to that mystery.

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