Moby-Dick Is My Literary Ultramarathon

moby dick vs 100-mile ultramarathon chart


The evening of September 4th, 2013, freshly zipped into my sleeping bag next to my friend Jim, inside a lightweight backpacking tent near the ridge of the north end of the Sangre de Cristo range in southern Colorado, I opened a copy of Moby-Dick, Bantam Classic edition. I read the opening line, one of the most famous in the history of western literature: “Call me Ishmael.” Then I read maybe five pages before I clicked off my headlamp and went to sleep.

I had bought the book at Tattered Cover on Colfax in Denver a few days earlier, looking for a dense, lightweight book to take on a backpacking trip we estimated would take somewhere between 10 and 16 days. The Bantam Classic edition of Moby-Dick was 670 pages, including some essays and criticism—surely enough to entertain me through 10 to 15 nights in a tent, maybe even a few rainy mornings. The book was about four inches by seven inches, and weighed 11.8 ounces, fairly lightweight per printed word (Moby-Dick is commonly estimated to be between 205,000 and 220,000 words).

I would be off grid for a week and a half to two weeks, and would have no other options for entertainment—the perfect time to grind through a behemoth like that! Right?

Except I didn’t. Moby-Dick: not exactly a page turner or a beach read. Every night, I’d manage a few meager pages before giving up and falling asleep. After the trip, I kept trying, leaving my original Tattered Cover receipt as a bookmark. Finally, I bailed at page 130. Maybe later.

Much later. Years passed, I read literally hundreds of other books, but hung onto that copy of Moby-Dick. I created a handout for the writing workshop I teach, illustrating how a story can be summed up in a sentence, a paragraph, or even a three-panel cartoon. Or it could be 200,000-some words. But I never finished reading Moby-Dick.

Until 2024. This would be the year, I told myself. Moby-Dick was my white whale. Metaphorically, of course.

But Jesus Christ, what a slog. Comment threads and product review pages are full of people who advise skipping the chapters about whale anatomy, and the book is dense—and by dense, I mean, pages and pages go by without the plot advancing. Herman Melville’s prose can feel at times quite long-winded for a 21st-century reader, and a smarter reader than I might characterize the book as having “difficult language and often opaque pacing.” Several abridged versions of the book exist—this one’s only 95 pages!

Lots of people will tell you that you shouldn’t battle to finish books you don’t enjoy reading, because it will make you avoid reading altogether. Better to just find something you like, and go with that. I subscribe to this, most of the time. But I also don’t enjoy running, and have forced myself to finish some very long-distance races and runs, because I think it will help me somehow. That’s not what you’d call “logical,” but it’s the way I live my life.

I pulled Moby-Dick off my shelf on March 12, 2024, and started right where I left off in 2013: Page 131. I pulled out the piece of paper I’d used as a bookmark, which was the September 1, 2013 receipt from Tattered Cover, only the print had faded to the point of near-invisibility.

I immediately regretted my decision, remembering how difficult the reading had been, and why I’d quit back in 2013 for something more enjoyable—yes, JUST LIKE RUNNING. Some days it’s all you can do to drag your carcass out the door to begrudgingly jog a few miles. Or maybe every day.

After a few nights of reading in bed next to my wife, Hilary, who would never do such a stupid thing as reading a book she did not enjoy, it became clear that if I was going to a) finish Moby-Dick and also b) stay married, I would have to put on my big boy pants and shut the fuck up about how much I would rather be reading about anything else besides whale anatomy. Many an ultramarathoner has been put in their place with many miles to go in a race, when they start whining/complaining/stating actual objective facts about how difficult things are, and a loved one or friend reminds them, “You signed up for this” or “You paid $250 for this.” Probably including myself?

Just like an ultramarathon, there were difficult sections, tedium, hard climbs, and the occasional flowy downhill section. I wanted to quit, or just take a break, or get disqualified somehow, or have the book spontaneously combust so I could just chalk it up to “Well, I guess the universe didn’t want me to finish it after all.”

But I kept going, because I am powerless against the sunk cost fallacy, which I understand but cannot force myself to actually avoid, when it comes down to it.

I hit the halfway mark, keeping a positive attitude, but Hilary still remarked to a friend that I was “hate-reading Moby-Dick,” which was kind of true. But I had to admit, some of the imagery was quite striking, and Melville’s perspective was definitely unique, and sometimes quite weird—especially considering the book was published in 1851. I plodded along, every night working through a few pages, just keeping moving, as I would in a long race. The going was slow, but there was only one way to the finish line.

You don’t remember everything about a book, especially when you read dozens or hundreds of books in your lifetime. A few pieces stay with you, maybe for the rest of your life, or at least a few years. Maybe you re-read the book years later, and notice completely different things about it.

The image from Moby-Dick that I think will stick with me: The watch at the top of the ship’s mast, standing high above the water, watching for whale spouts in the distance. How wild it must have been, in the early 1800s, when the invention of the elevator was decades away (1853), to hang in the air 100 feet above the boat deck, floating over an ocean on the far side of the world, scanning for an animal the size of a school bus.

There are long, loooooong sections of the book in which it feels like nothing happens, and after 500-some pages of reading, I started to wonder when, exactly, we might finally see THIS FUCKING WHALE, and the actual finish line of the book.

Look, you can do whatever you want with your spare time, and reading books is certainly no more virtuous than gardening, or building model airplanes, or watching every episode of every season of a TV show. But if you’ve ever taken a shortcut to get just the good parts, you know how that feels, and whether or not that approach works for you. For better or for worse, I always prefer the slog to the summit, or finish line, or, in this case, a novel that has been built up to be a test of endurance.

Anyway, in the last 30 or so pages, Moby-Dick becomes a page-turner—for the last five percent of the book, it’s a sprint to the finish. And then it’s finally over, and you never have to read it again. But that doesn’t mean you’re done thinking about it. And about Melville, and how the book didn’t become successful until after he’d been dead for more than 60 years, and how he made basically $1259 off of it in his lifetime.

So I finished Moby-Dick, on my own initiative as an adult, not for any sort of college credit. I do not want a cookie, or a high-five. But a belt buckle that says “Moby-Dick Finisher”? Sure, I’d take one of those.

Moby Dick Finisher Belt Buckle

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