1. It must reward successive rereadings and get better each time.
2. It must be canonical and grip the imagination.
3. It must be linked to American history and letters in some essential way.
4. It must span the intellectual, the emotional, the religious, and the metaphysical.
5. It must be fun. You must be sad when the book is over, and wish it had been longer than it was.
6. It must be about a large white whale and have numerous Biblical allusions.
That leaves us with Moby Dick at the top.
The most indicative chapter for the book’s strangeness is "A Squeeze of the Hand." Has anyone done a better literary treatment of a homosexual ******-****, much less when writing about whale spermaceti? Excerpt:
As I sat there at my ease, cross-legged on the deck; after the bitter exertion at the windlass; under a blue tranquil sky; the ship under indolent sail, and gliding so serenely along; as I bathed my hands among those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues, woven almost within the hour; as they richly broke to my fingers, and discharged all their opulence, like fully ripe grapes their wine; as I snuffed up that uncontaminated aroma, – literally and truly, like the smell of spring violets; I declare to you, that for the time I lived as in a musky meadow; I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it; I almost began to credit the old Paracelsan superstition that sperm is of rare virtue in allaying the heat of anger: while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulence, or malice, of any sort whatsoever.
Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, – Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.
Here comes the best part:
Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever! For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally. In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti.
Get the picture? But do read the whole (short) chapter at the link, just in case you are confused about the context…
The method of the novel, if you can call it one, is madness. It is a collage of impressions, tales, facts about whaling, erotic interludes, and observations about social science. Occasionally the plot resurfaces but this can involve less rather than more tension. Moby Dick also can be read as pure commentary on the Bible or Shakespeare. Melville knew who his competitors were.
I’ve talked to many people who find the book offputting. Delve right in and embrace the strangeness. Take the ostensible masculinity and interpret it, and all the other foibles, as over-the-top. Dig out the implicit theology. Think of it as a new literary model. And best of all, read only one short chapter a day.
Tomorrow you get the near runners-up. Do feel free to offer your first place picks in the comments.