Excerpt for The Classics Slacker Reads Moby Dick by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




Copyright © 2018 by Cta Negrón

ISBN: 9781720054849

Illustrations by Kris Wraight

Cover design by

“Slacky” drawing and spine logo by Eliza B.

Book design: Y42K Publishing Services

The Classics Slacker gratefully acknowledges the original Slacker fans (the Slackies) for their steadfast support and encouragement: Amby Burfoot, Olivia Negrón, Sara Pritchard, Deb Martin, Jen Van Allen, and Michelle Hamilton.

I grin at thee, thou grinning whale!”



Remember the Mayans? Remember when they predicted the world was going to end on December 12, 2012? When I heard that, my first thought was, “Oh my god! I never read Moby Dick!

I planned to read it someday, of course—and lots of other classic books. I didn’t know I had a specific and literal deadline. So as the clock ticked down to doomsday, I opened up Moby Dick and started reading. Fell asleep right after “Call me Ishmael.”

When I woke up on December 13, 2012—noticing that I and the world still existed—I rolled over and went back to sleep. Five years later I still hadn’t read Moby Dick. I had to face the truth: I was a classics slacker. The Classics Slacker.

Maybe you’re a classics slacker, too. Here’s how to tell: When you come across those lists of “100 Greatest Books of All Time,” are you shocked to discover that you’ve only read three? Or maybe you’ve read ten, but can’t remember anything except carriage rides, bonnets, and couples exchanging meaningful glances over embroidery.

Anyway, if this sounds like you, and it probably does, you will likely respond in one of two ways:

  • With shame and self-loathing (especially if you were an English major, as was The Classics Slacker). To cope with these feelings, you pour a large glass of wine and, instead of reading something—anything—you watch When Harry Met Sally for the 103rd time.

  • With renewed ambition. You drive to your nearest used bookstore and buy a pile of classic novels such as Ulysses, War and Peace, A Tale of Two Cities, Madame Bovary, Wuthering Heights, etc., etc., etc. (That’s the Latin abbreviation for “Wow, how many of these books are there, anyway?”) Back home, you slide them onto your bookshelf, assuming you have one. There they will taunt you every day, increasing your already Les Miserables-sized self-contempt to the height and width of the British Library.

But no more, my fellow well-intentioned, literature-impaired friends! There is another way! The Classics Slacker is reading the classics so you don’t have to. No longer will you feel unworthy every time you encounter a list of “Books You Should Have Read or You Are an Idiot.”

One of those books is invariably Moby Dick, long chosen by high school students everywhere as the most detested novel in the history of literature. For that reason alone, it is the first selection in The Classics Slacker series.

Written by American novelist Herman Melville, Moby Dick was published in 1851. Reading was one of only two forms of indoor entertainment back then; the other was attending parties where you were forced to listen to the host’s teenage daughter play the pianoforte for hours.

Nonetheless, Melville’s novel was not well received. Just about everyone hated it. Especially the parts about whales, which, sad to say, make up large portions of the book.

Despite its lackluster launch, Moby Dick ranks way up there among the greatest books of all time. It’s certainly the fishiest. True, some scholars argue for Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. But Dick is seven times longer than Old Man, and whales are way bigger than marlin. Thus, The Classics Slacker must give the nod to Dick.

You might have noticed that The Classics Slacker spells Moby Dick without a hyphen. It often appears with a hyphen. The Classics Slacker has meticulously researched this hyphen/no hyphen question and still hasn’t reached a definitive conclusion. The decision to go hyphenless in this volume was made really only to save ink.

With or without a hyphen, Moby Dick has 135 chapters. Among them: “Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes”; “The Great Heidelburgh Tun”; “Ambergris”; “A Bower in the Arsacides”; and “Measurement of the Whale’s Skeleton.”

By comparison, The Classics Slacker Reads Moby Dick has only forty chapters (along with cute illustrations). Among them: “Ishmael Gets Laid”; “Call Him Ahab”; “You Don’t Know Dick”; “A Whiter Shade of Whale”; and “Sperm! Sperm! Sperm!”

Which book would you rather read?

The Classics Slacker couldn’t agree more.

Meet and Greet

The first sentence of Moby Dick goes down real easy, like swallowing a goldfish. After all, it’s only three words: “Call me Ishmael.”

The second sentence isn’t too bad, either, although considerably longer (forty words). Basically Ishmael says he’s decided to go out to sea. He says when he feels depressed—or as Ishmael puts it “a damp, drizzly November in my soul”—he figures it’s time to head for the water.

Who can’t relate to this? Beyond lifting moods, the sights and sounds of the ocean can silence mindless brain chatter. Notes Ishmael: “Meditation and water are wedded forever.” Or, as The Classics Slacker’s mom used to say, “I do my best thinking in the bathtub.” That works pretty well, too, if you can’t get to the ocean.

Poor Ishmael can’t afford a bathtub or a boat ride. But that’s okay with him. He prefers to get a job on a ship. “Passengers get sea-sick—grow quarrelsome—don’t sleep of nights—do not enjoy themselves much, as a general thing;—no I never go as a passenger.”

Smart guy. Having once endured the horrors of a cruise vacation, The Classics Slacker understands completely.

But before Ishmael can find a ship he can work for, he has to fish around for a place to stay for a couple nights in New Bedford, Massachusetts, because he missed the boat (ha!) out of Nantucket: “For my mind was made up to sail in no other than a Nantucket craft, because there was a fine, boisterous something about everything connected with that famous old island, which amazingly pleased me.”

Ishmael would love to check into one of New Bedford’s top-rated hotels on Trip Advisor, but he lacks the cash: “With anxious grapnels I had sounded my pocket and only brought up a few pieces of silver.” Before he books a room, he advises himself to “be sure to inquire the price, and don’t be too particular.”

If his finances were a bit healthier, he might have stayed at The Crossed Harpoons. But from the street it looked “too expensive and jolly.” Same problem with The Sword-Fish Inn, also “too expensive and jolly.” Ishmael needs someplace cheap and depressing. At last he happens upon The Spouter-Inn. “As the swinging sign had a poverty-stricken sort of creak to it, I thought that here was the very spot for cheap lodgings.”

In other words, perfect!

Sleeping with the Cannibal

Our guy Ishmael has a problem of biblical proportions. There are no rooms left at the Inn. But the innkeeper—Peter Coffin—has a ready solution: Ishmael can bunk down with one of his regular boarders, a harpooneer named Queequeg. There’s just one little issue with it—the room has only one bed.

Ishmael has some misgivings about this proposition: “No man prefers to sleep two in a bed...And when it comes to sleeping with an unknown stranger in a strange inn, in a strange town, and that stranger a harpooneer, then your objections indefinitely multiply.”

Mr. Coffin offers Ishmael a bench to sleep on and hauls out his woodworking tools to try to make it as comfortable as, well, a coffin. Soon wood shavings are flying all over the place. “The landlord was near spraining his wrist, and I told him for heaven’s sake to quit—the bed was soft enough to suit me, and I did not know how all the planing in the world could make eider down of a pine plank.”

Ishmael decides to take his chances with the harpooneer after all, who has yet to show up. Peter Coffin reassures him all will be well. “He pays reg’lar,” says the innkeeper, admitting that Queequeg supplements his harpooneer’s income by selling shrunken heads on the side.

Ishmael, pooped, troops upstairs to his room. He gets into bed, curls himself into the fetal position, and nearly reaches “the land of Nod.”

Then Queequeg enters the room. He does not slip in unnoticed. First off, he’s huge, bald, and covered in tats. Ishmael’s eyes pop open at the sight of him. He tries to rationalize away Queequeg’s appearance: “It’s only his outside; a man can be honest in any sort of skin.”

True. But the shrunken heads salesman is also smoking “great clouds of tobacco,” toting his inventory, and waving a tomahawk. For some reason, Ishmael hadn’t put together that selling heads and cannibalism go hand in hand (the best parts). He is stunned speechless, overcome with fear. Queequeg finally notices the mute Ishmael when he climbs into bed.

Screaming ensues until Peter Coffin rushes in to save the day (night). He clears up the confusion between the two men, and Ishmael sees that Queequeg means no harm. “For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal.” And he had seen earlier in the evening how destructive arrantest topers (drunk sailors) can be. He decides, rather philosophically, “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

Cannibals, sure. But smokers, no. That’s where Ishmael draws the line, and Queequeg kindly agrees to extinguish his smoking materials. “I don’t fancy having a man smoking in bed with me,” Ishmael says. “It’s dangerous. Besides, I ain’t insured.”

If only Ishmael lived in Canada instead of the United States. He would’ve been covered by universal health care.

Calm before the Storm

Melville knows a thing or two about pacing. First he riles up his reader with the exciting tale of Ishmael and his new cannibalistic bedfellow, Queequeg. Once his reader realizes that Ishmael survives the night without getting eaten (which would make for a much shorter book), the author slows things down a bit and gives his reader a chance to breathe. But perhaps Melville slows things down a bit too much. The Classics Slacker was in danger of dozing.

Because, over the next ten pages or so, Ishmael recounts a series of his doings where he’s doing nothing. He wakes up next to Queequeg. He watches Queequeg get dressed. He eats breakfast. He walks around New Bedford. Yawn.

Wasn’t Ishmael supposed to go on some sort of voyage? Yes, indeed. Back on page 1, there it is: “I thought I would sail about a little bit and see the watery part of the world.” Then why the dressing, the eating, the walking?

Who knows? Apparently, Ishmael thinks this is interesting stuff. Regarding Queequeg’s morning routine: “At that time in the morning any Christian would have washed his face; but Queequeg, to my amazement contented himself with restricting his ablutions to his chest, arms, and hands.”

If anything’s amazing it’s that Ishmael is captivated by all this. At least he knows he’s being a bit of a weirdo and not as cultured as the cannibal. “He treated me with so much consideration, while I was guilty of a great rudeness; staring at him from the bed, and watching all his toilette motions; for the time my curiosity getting the better of my breeding.”

Breakfast is boring, too, as the rowdy sailors of the previous evening sit mute before their coffee and hot rolls. Ishmael had thought breakfast would be an entertaining affair, that he would “hear some good stories about whaling.” But none are forthcoming. “To my no small surprise nearly every man maintained a profound silence.” Why? He doesn’t say. But it’s almost certainly because their heads are pounding with massive hangovers.

So Ishmael leaves the inn to stroll around New Bedford. Nothing’s really happening there, either, until Ishmael goes to Whaleman’s Chapel.

And then, finally...something of interest. Within the walls of the chapel Ishmael reads marble memorials of dead men “lost overboard,” “towed out of sight by a whale,” “killed by a Sperm Whale” etc., etc. “It needs scarcely to be told [which of course means he’s going to tell us anyway], with what feelings, on the eve of a Nantucket voyage [yippee, there is a voyage coming at some point, maybe even tomorrow] I regarded those marble tablets, and by the murky light of that darkened, doleful day read the fate of the whalemen who had gone before me.”

In sum, the memorials cause Ishmael to think “hmmm.” But not to worry. Although he knows he may die at sea, he calls it “a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of man into Eternity.” As opposed to a slow orderly dying of reader by boredom.


When the name of a church is “Whaleman’s Chapel,” you can bet your fish and chips that the dominant décor is “Naturally Nautical.” The Whaleman’s Chapel does not disappoint. Dead sailor memorials and gigantic paintings of sinking ships festoon the walls. A pulpit, fashioned in the likeness of a ship’s bow, towers above the pews.

The Classics Slacker thinks the pulpit, as described by Ishmael, seems a tad over the top for a humble house of worship, but our narrator defends it: “The whole contrivance, considering what manner of chapel it was, seemed by no means in bad taste.” Perhaps. But it’s definitely impractical. Ishmael wonders how the pulpiteer (Father Mapple) is going to deliver a sermon from that height, especially since the pulpit lacks an obvious means of ascent. Then he sees it: “The architect, it seemed, had acted upon the hint of Father Mapple, and finished the pulpit without a stairs, substituting a perpendicular side ladder, like those used in mounting a ship from a boat at sea.”

Ishmael also reports that “the wife of a whaling captain had provided the chapel with a handsome pair of red worsted man-ropes for this ladder.” Which makes The Classics Slacker question how in the name of Long John Silver does Ishmael have so much insider information about the construction of the pulpit? Maybe he happened to sit next to the wife of the whaling captain and she said, “Hey, you. You’re new here, right? Guess what? I provided that handsome pair of red worsted man-ropes for the ladder.”

Anyway, once Father Mapple makes his entrance, sleet dripping from his Gorton Fisherman’s hat, Ishmael can tell that he’ll have no problem climbing the rope ladder. He notes that the vigorous pastor is in “the hardy winter of a healthy old age.” And indeed he climbs up with no difficulty whatsoever.

Now situated in the pulpit, Father Fitness appears ready to pontificate, but his parishioners haven’t quite settled down. They’ve seen this rope-climbing trick dozens of times, and it doesn’t impress them the way it transfixes Ishmael. So the pastor has to call them to attention, which he does thusly: “Starboard gangway, there! Side away to larboard—larboard gangway to starboard! Midships! midships!”

Now, The Classics Slacker was dragged to a few Catholic masses as a child and witnessed some weird stuff. But the Catholic priest knew that his congregants were sitting in pews, not standing ready to jib the sails (or whatever you call it; The Classics Slacker knows nothing about boats). This Father Mapple seems to have lost his oyster crackers.

Strangely, Mapple’s minions know that “larboarding the gangway to starboard” means sit down and shut up. Father Mapple “slowly turns over the leaves of the Bible,” apparently looking for the parable du jour. But he’s really just milking every second, trying to build up dramatic tension because he chooses (surprise!): Jonah and the Whale!

His parishioners, living as they do in New Bedford, Massachusetts, no doubt have heard this story as often as foghorns. Nonetheless, they larboard themselves to starboard and listen to Father Mapple drone on for the next seven pages.

The Classics Slacker would’ve jumped overboard.

Dearly Beloved

If same-sex marriage had been legal in 1850, Ishmael and Queequeg would’ve gone straight to the wedding registry at Bed, Bath, and Beyond.

The relationship of these two lovebirds develops like the plot of a modern rom-com. Thrown together by fate at the Spouter-Inn—where they are forced to spend the night together in one bed—Ishmael is repulsed by the sight of Queequeg. At first. But soon he finds himself intrigued by Queequeg’s tats, his “bald purplish head,” and his nighttime routine, which includes saying prayers to a wooden idol.

By morning Ishmael discovers Queequeg’s arm “wrapped around me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.” Almost? He “hugged me tightly, as though not but death should part us twain.”

Ishmael attempts to “unlock his bridegroom’s grasp.” He’s not that easy, after all. He has to be wooed and won. In every love story one partner is always a little reluctant. Otherwise the story would be over in ten minutes.

Ishmael begins to observe Queequeg with increasing interest—and affection. After attending the sermon at the Whaleman’s Chapel, Ishmael returns to the Spouter-Inn and notices Queequeg trying to read a book. Ishmael continues to watch his roommate surreptitiously, “half-pretending” that he’s just looking out the windows. He is touched to see the cannibal trying to educate himself—even though he’s just turning pages, not comprehending anything, and stops at page 50. This, coincidentally, is about the same place where The Classics Slacker wanted to give up on Moby Dick.

But back to our lovers. As Ishmael continues to gaze at Queequeg, a surprising revelation comes over him: “Through all his unearthly tattooings, I thought I saw the traces of a simple honest heart; and in his large, deep eyes, fiery black and bold, there seemed tokens of a spirit that would dare a thousand devils.” This guy is clearly falling in love. Indeed, just a page later, Ishmael confesses: “I began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me.”

What follows is a typical lovers’ montage: Ish and Double Q (their pet names) overcoming their language barrier, smoking in bed together (apparently Ishmael no longer cares about risk of fire), taking little naps (Queequeg “now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine”), eating cozy dinners for two, discussing religion, more smoking in bed.

All this time in bed naturally leads to pillow talk. And so, Queequeg tells Ishmael his life story. Turns out, ta-da! he’s not just a regular old cannibal. He’s the son of a king! Ishmael’s prince has come.

And so, the two are wed. “He pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married.” Afterward they engage in the most intimate act a couple can share: divvying up their money. “He drew out some thirty dollars in silver; then spreading them on the table, and mechanically dividing them into two equal portions, pushed one of them towards me, and said it was mine.” One can only hope he asked Ishmael to sign a prenup.

At last Queequeg and Ishmael sail for Nantucket—sort of a honeymoon cruise. On the ship Queequeg dives into the water to save a jerk who goes overboard. It’s a real turn-on to see your beloved risk his life in a brave rescue, and with such humility. Says Ishmael: “He did not seem to think that he at all deserved a medal from the Humane and Magnanimous Societies.” Ishmael is permanently and forever bound to his man. “From that hour I clove to Queequeg like a barnacle.”

If only they really could’ve married. “Cannibal and Barnacle, do you take each other to be your lawfully wedded husbands?”

They do!

Mmm, Mmm, Good!

Ishmael and Queequeg love soup. What kind? Chowder, of course. We discover just how much they love chowder in a chapter Melville calls “Chowder,” where we pick up our tale.

Hungry as all get out, the newlyweds stumble into the Try Pots Inn, owned by Peter Coffin’s cousin Hosea Hussey. Evidently restaurant and hotel management runs in the family.

Ishmael asks the proprietress, Mrs. Hussey, for supper, to which she barks, “Clam or Cod?” Ishmael politely asks for more details about the fish: “What’s that about Cods, ma’am?” Is it grilled, fried, breaded? Mrs. Hussey refuses to elaborate and instead repeats her question like an exasperated diner waitress: “Clam or Cod?”

Ishmael is alarmed. “A clam for supper?” he asks. “A cold clam: is that what you mean, Mrs. Hussey? But that’s a rather cold and clammy reception in the winter time, ain’t it, Mrs. Hussey?” He and Queequeg are starving; he’s hoping the clam comes with a side order of fries and coleslaw at least. Mrs. Hussey is in no mood to discuss the house specials. After hearing Ishmael say “clam” three times, she bolts for the kitchen and yells to the cook, “Clam for two.”

Panic sets in: “Queequeg, do you think that we can make out a supper for us both on one clam?” They would need a pretty small fork.

No need to strategize as it turns out. This clam/cod business is just a comical miscommunication, as most miscommunications are. Mrs. Hussey brings each of them a bowl of clam chowder worthy of Emeril’s. Chowder is the specialty of the house—the only specialty of the house. What Mrs. Hussey failed to explain is that the Try Pots Inn serves two kinds of chowder—clam and cod. When Ishmael said “clam,” Mrs. Hussey brought them clam chowder. After finishing up the clam chowder, they order “cod,” and Mrs. Hussey brings them cod chowder. They have cracked the cod, I mean, code.

Ishmael and Queequeg go on to chow down on chowder for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Doesn’t seem to bother those two chowderheads. Not one clam. Or cod.

Ishmael Gets Laid

Lots of couples talk over their plans in bed, and Ishmael and Queequeg are no exception. “In bed we concocted our plan for the morrow.” First on the agenda: choose a ship for their big adventure. It’s no small decision; they’ll be spending the next 430 pages on this particular boat. Even so, Queequeg says Ishmael must go ship shopping by himself.

See, Queequeg has consulted his adviser, Yojo, about the matter. Yojo is kind of like Yoda. Perhaps George Lucas modeled Yoda after Yojo. After all, Moby Dick preceded Star Wars by 127 years. And the characters look suspiciously similar. Yojo is “a curious little deformed image with a hunch on his back.”

Yojo doesn’t talk out loud (he’s made of wood), but Queequeg receives his messages loud and clear. On this subject, Yojo has said something like: “Ship you will choose not with Ishmael, ehm.”

Knowing Queequeg would never disobey Yoda, er, Yojo, Ishmael heads to the shipyard alone and checks out a few vessels. He quickly dismisses the Devil-Dam and the Tit-Bit, based on their names alone one assumes. And then, like Goldilocks, Ishmael climbs aboard the Pequod and declares her just right.

The first guy he sees hanging out on the Pequod is a dude named Peleg. Ishmael assumes he’s the ship’s captain. But it turns out Peleg and his buddy Bildad are part owners. Ishmael has to interview with them before landing a whale-hunting job.

Peleg and Bildad subject Ishmael to all the standard interview questions: Have you ever gone whaling before? Where do you see yourself in five years? Do you like seafood?

Ishmael answers the questions satisfactorily, and so the three of them move on to the next stage: salary negotiation.

Whalemen are paid by getting laid. Or rather, they are ranked by the way they lay. Meaning, the higher your lay ranking, the more money you earn; a lay is a percentage of the ship’s earnings. It’s all very democratic. Naturally the guys on top get the best lay.

Bildad decides that Ishmael is worth the 777th lay. Peleg is shocked by his partner’s paltry offer and a little embarrassed, too. “Why, blast your eyes, Bildad! Thou dost not want to swindle this young man! He must have more than that.” Peleg ups it to 300. This makes Ishmael a lot happier, especially since he was hoping for 275, maybe even 200, “considering I was of a broad-shouldered make.”

Our hero thinks the deal is sealed, but then finds out that he still has to pass muster with the big boss, the captain of the Pequod: Ahab.

Ishmael hasn’t heard great things about Ahab. But Peleg does his best to quell his anxiety. Sure, Ahab’s been “kind of moody” since the last voyage when a whale “devoured, chewed up, and crunched his leg.” But who wouldn’t be?

Ishmael decides to put his trust in Peleg. After all, Peleg was the one who gave him a good lay.

Greet and Eat

At times, Moby Dick is laugh-out-loud funny. Seriously. The Classics Slacker laughed out loud.

Take the chapter called “The Ramadan” where Queequeg observes, you guessed it, Ramadan. (Melville has a real flair for chapter titles.) Although Ishmael practices Christianity and Queequeg practices Cannibalism (the food is better), Ishmael is surprisingly tolerant. On their first night together he says, “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” He even tries to understand Queequeg’s religion. “Although I applied myself to it several times, I never could master his liturgies.” In other words, Ishmael just doesn’t “get” Ramadan.

Still, when the holy day arrives, Ishmael leaves Queequeg alone so he can fast and meditate. He last sees him “posed on his hams in a cold room, holding a piece of wood on his head.” The “wood,” as the ham-headed Ishmael refers to it, is Queequeg’s beloved idol, Yojo. (See “Ishmael Gets Laid” on page TK for more about Yojo.)

Ishmael does not expect Queequeg’s observance of Ramadan to last longer than your typical Catholic mass, where, it must be pointed out, celebrants crunch wafer cookies made of body parts and drink wine distilled from blood. (Who’s the cannibal now?) But Ishmael is about to learn that a Ramadan meditation, at least the cannibal version, outlasts most, if not all, of your major religious services. When Ishmael returns, he finds the door locked. He knocks. No answer. He calls through the door. No answer. He grows alarmed, imagining that his “friend” (see “Dearly Beloved” on page TK for the truth about these two) has had a stroke, or worse.

Ishmael runs for help and finds the mistress of the house, Mrs. Hussey. She discovers Queequeg’s harpoon missing from the storage closet, confirming Ishmael’s worst fear. She is none too pleased about it, either. “It will be the ruin of my house,” she gripes. “Betty,” she commands her chambermaid, “Go to Snarles the painter and tell him to paint me a sign: ‘No suicides permitted here, and no smoking in the parlor.’ Might as well kill both birds at once.” Too bad Mrs. Hussey hadn’t posted that sign earlier. It might have saved Queequeg’s life—and lots of money on upholstery cleaning.

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