Growing up with Moby Dick
A look back on the person I used to be
I feel like most people of my generation who were exposed to Moby Dick as kids were introduced to it by their Gen X dads.
I was not introduced to Moby Dick by my father. While my dad’s taste did affect a lot of the movies, music, and books that I was exposed to (and developed a taste for) as a kid, Moby Dick was something that I discovered on my own, thanks to the internet, and specifically, file sharing sites. For some people, P2P file sharing was something you did because downloading twelve MP3 files and burning them onto a disc was cheaper than buying a CD from a local retailer. But in the corners of the internet where I found myself in 2005, there was sort of a culture of torrenting things just because you could. In an era where games fit on 700 MB compact discs, the idea of filling up a 160 GB hard drive seemed inconceivable, but some torrenters took it as a challenge.
Much like the person who starts their day by opening the YouTube app without specifically knowing what they’re going to watch that day, I would go to torrent portals and message boards and chat rooms mainly for the purpose of discovering new media, and the summer before my freshman year of high school, I downloaded a lot of things just out of a vague sense that they were culturally significant and I would probably benefit from exposing myself to them. It was a place to find classic movies, music, books, and games.
In that sense, sites like the (now defunct) Mininova and Demonoid were a lot like a public library. (There’s also a sense in which torrents, as opposed to tools like Limewire, encouraged downloading entire collections and a sort of archivist mindset – so you might know to look for one particular song, and then end up downloading an entire discography. Depending on where you were searching, and what torrent client you were using, it was actually easier to download a zip file with every single novel written by Michael Crichton than to download a single book.
That was how I “discovered” Moby Dick. I recognized a familiar name, said “I should probably experience this,” and (filesize / 135 KB) seconds later, I finally had a chance to load it up and see what it was all about.
My first teenage impression of Moby Dick in real-time, for the first 20% or so, was that it was clearly competent. I could clearly see the appeal. It wasn’t really my thing – it felt sort of primitive in comparison to more modern material that I was used to, but I could clearly see that it was, in what I imagined to be some “objective” sense, good.
And then I got around 25% of the way through. And, not to spoil it for you, but at around 25% in, Moby Dick becomes something very different. And my first thought was, “this is weird, hopefully it’ll get back to the ‘good stuff’ soon.” But it didn’t let up: it kept being weird. And my reaction turned from one of annoyance, to confusion, to a kind of resentment at just how pretentious it was being. "You’re being weird for the sake of being weird. Why can’t you go back to being 'normal,’ like the stuff I’m used to!“ But this was a culturally significant piece of media, presenting me with something that I could not recognize the merit of. I felt like I had been trolled by the entire culture!
I had reached "level 1 contrarianism”: “People say this thing is great, but I think it’s garbage!”
It wasn’t until half a decade later in college that I finally revisited Moby Dick. And, to my surprise, I found that I really liked it. In fact, the things about it that struck me as “weird” and “pretentious” suddenly struck me as “daring” and “ delightfully experimental.” It was unpredictable. It didn’t follow any predictable sense of pattern or rhythm, at least compared to what I was used to as a 20-year-old. Moby Dick the third time was not the same experience as Moby Dick the fifth time, or the tenth time. Every time I revisited it, I discovered something new.
In a way, my “media discovery” was similar to what it had been during my teenage years, but just taking a different shape: I was striving toward becoming more cultured, but with a focus on depth, rather than breadth. When I was a teenager, the idea of rewatching a movie or TV show held little appeal; as a college student, I delighted in revisiting old shows and seeing what they offered on rewatch. And if you’re going to go back to a piece of media to see how many layers it has, you could do a lot worse than Moby Dick.
But over time, my love of Moby Dick morphed into something else. Because, to the same degree that my teenage self disliked Mody Dick for being “pretentious,” my college sophomore self delighted in being the sort of utterly sophomoric person who delights in things because of what other people decry as pretention.
While I had honestly appraised Moby Dick to be one of my favorites, telling people that I loved Moby Dick was, on a certain level, a form of bragging, and so in that sense it literally was pretentious. It was a way of forming and declaring my identity as the sort of person who enjoys Moby Dick. I delighted in knowing everything there was to know about Moby Dick: “did you know that Moby Dick wasn’t released just once? A year after the release of the version that everyone’s familiar with, they released a different version that’s even longer. I think I almost like it better than the original.”
I certainly enjoyed Moby Dick on its own merits, but also there’s a certain pleasure that comes from presenting yourself as the person who has spent a huge amount of time with a specific piece of media and learning enough to talk about it in a sophisticated or erudite that makes you highly “cultured.”
(Of course, if I could listen back to the “sophisticated” things that my college sophomore self had to say about it, I would probably cringe now.)
I had reached “level 2 contrarianism”: “people say this thing is boring and pretentious, but actually it’s great!”
Five years later, I still liked Moby Dick, but not with the hyper fanaticism of a 20-year-old who’s just discovered the ability to enjoy things that exist outside the conventional mold of popular media. While Moby Dick is certainly doing something that feels atypical by 21st century standards, it wasn’t really doing something entirely unique: lots of greats had done the same before, and since. It was both overrated by fans and underrated by critics. Sure, it was influential, but it didn’t really deserve to be influential; the fact that it influenced so many people is mostly a quirk of history, and not really due to anything having to do with “objective” greatness. If Moby Dick were released in [current year], it wouldn’t be anything special.
I had reached a new stage of contrarianism, level 3: “people say this thing is either excellent or boring, but actually it’s just pretty decent.” (I don’t have much more to say about this: appraising things as anywhere between “mediocre” or “pretty okay I guess” is, by definition, milquetoast. I had very little to say about Moby Dick, except to sort of look back pityingly at the hater I had been at age 15 and the fanatic I had been at age 20.
My 25-year-old self might be the most pretentious of all, because “Moby Dick is okay I guess” is maybe the most incomprehensible take I’ve had on it. From my present-day perspective, I can totally understand hating Moby Dick from a completely inexperienced perspective, and I can totally understand loving Moby Dick for totally sophomoric reasons, but I think that my 25-year-old stance on Moby Dick is more a reaction to my younger self.
I think it was another layer of pretention in this sense: My 20-year-old self felt special for liking Moby Dick instead of more contemporary “popular media.” My 25-year-old self had realized that Moby Dick was popular media, and, on a certain level, treated it as another thing to feel “above.” (Or maybe I’m just modeling my 25-year-old self incorrectly, and I had just become bored with Moby Dick after so much repeated exposure, and at that point lacked the ability to appreciate it to a further degree).
Here’s my current take: Moby Dick is actually everything that it’s cracked up to be. (I was going to call this my “level 4 contrarian” take, but the thing is, there’s not an ounce of contrarianism to saying “everyone is totally right about how Moby Dick is.”) It’s an incredible showcase of talent from one of the all-time greats. John Bonham is not overrated: everyone says “he’s the greatest drummer of all time” and they are right. The fact that Bonham is one of the most influential drummers that ever lived is indisputable (there’s a reason they call it the “Bonham triplet”), but it’s largely irrelevant. Led Zeppelin didn’t invent rock and roll, and you can certainly have a conversation about whether Bonham “deserves” to be one of the most influential drummers to ever live, but the “Bonham triplet” isn’t significant because it’s named after him, it’s significant because when Bonham does it, it actively enhances your enjoyment of the music. He’s not doing it just to show off! He’s doing it because he’s a performer, and his job is to satisfy the audience, and over a long career he got really good at doing that!
Led Zeppelin is fun to listen to even in the absence of any kind of historical context. Bonham’s drumming in particular is a particularly important piece of the trouble. And Moby Dick is the track where he gets to hog the stage.
While you’re certainly allowed to believe that drum solos are "pretentious and hard to follow,” I think there’s something beautiful in drum solos that is a perfect blend of rhythm and chaos, and nobody does it better than Bonham. There are drum solos, and then there’s Moby Dick. It really is something special. That was my sophomoric take, and it’s easy to declare something “special” when you’re a college sophomore, which is probably why I felt a need to distance myself from that opinion. But it turns out, my 20-year-old self was right: Moby Dick is just great. It’s fun to listen to, and that’s true even absent any discussion of “culture.”
Moby Dick isn’t overrated, and it’s not underrated – it’s correctly recognized as one of the greatest of all time. And if you listen and don’t understand the appeal and can’t have a good time with it, that’s okay – come back in 5 years, and maybe time and experience will have changed your mind. Or maybe it won’t – and that’s okay, too!
While my 25-year-old attitudes seemed largely characterized by a desperate attempt to distance myself from the views I held when I was younger, I no longer feel the same way – I think it’s cool that I got to be all of these different people: the teenager who hates Moby Dick for being boring and pretentious, and the college sophomore who loves it because it’s daring and sophisticated, and the 25-year-old who seemed to be jaded for no reason other than that it seemed like the proper thing to be. It’s kind of cool that history contains all these different people who think so differently differently from despite the fact that they are literally me. (Is this what it means to “contain multitudes?)