Moby-Dick is a book you need to read twice, because the first time you read it it’s entirely not what you expect. The second time around gives you a chance to know what’s coming-—yes, there will be an entire chapter about the color white—-and even then, the novel is just full of so many bizarre and beautiful images and amazing turns-of-language it can still suckerpunch you. (I mean, there’s a scene where Ahab stands in the middle of a typhoon waving a flaming harpoon!)
This Library of America volume puts Moby-Dick side by side with the lesser known Redburn and White-Jacket. These are both less story driven and more fictionalized documentary. Redburn, ostensibly about a young sailor’s first voyage, is really a series of chapters describing life as a sailor. What plot there is is fairly slight. White-Jacket is similar, only this time it is about life in the U.S. Navy aboard a Man-of-War. (These plot-free novels make all the plot-free descriptive chapters of Moby-Dick understandable in context. It's what 19th century readers expected when they picked up a book by Mr. Melville.) Both of these novels have their standout moments. Redburn has a chilling chapter where the young narrator on a layover in Liverpool watches a mother and her children starve to death over the course of several days. And White-Jacket has a chapter about an on-board amputation that is so gory, absurd, and funny it could just as well have appeared in Catch-22.
Moby-Dick of course is a giant and beautiful mess. It’s a slaughtered-whale of a novel, to speak metaphorically. (Which is easy to do after immersing yourself in 600 pages of Melville’s non-stop metaphorizing.) It’s no refined classic. It’s unkempt, preposterous, beautiful and totally American.