This book, which came out in 2008, never got the attention it deserves. I read it awhile ago, and recently I came back to it, and I found myself moved by it all over again. It is beautifully written, wise, and highly original. It draws its inspiration from Moby Dick, and so perhaps readers assume that one needs to be a scholar of Moby Dick to get into this book. I will tell you that is not so. Even if you’ve never read Moby Dick, you will find much to love in this book (although it may well make you want to go read Moby Dick).

It is a difficult book to describe, and I fear that attempting to do so will only reduce it. But, generally, it takes as its form the “cetological dictionary” that Ishmael begins in Moby Dick. A Whaler’s Dictionary is organized into sections under a variety of headings, such as “Omen,” “Line,” and “Hands.” Each section is a sort of short, lyric essay, defining its subject heading with inspiration from Moby Dick. The book actively encourages you to read it non-linearly. Each entry ends with a short list of other, tangentially related entries that you might want to read next.

But what makes the book work is the quality of the writing. The excerpt below is from the section on “Faith,” which examines and expands on the chapter in Moby Dick in which Mapple delivers a sermon about Jonah and the whale:

Before Mapple begins his sermon on Jonah, he kneels “in the pulpit’s bows” and offers “a prayer so deeply devout that he seemed to be kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea.” Such is the impossible difficulty genuine faith demands. As Mapple soon says, “all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do.” That difficulty, as this “pilot-prophet” puts it before us, is to pray in two locations at once, from the prow of the ship rolling on the ocean’s surface and from the still, silent, dark depths of the ocean. Mapple’s actions, the manifestation of his faith, suggest that when we send our prayers heavenward from surface to sky, we mistake the abysmal depths our faith must first cross. When we pray we must kneel on the ocean’s bed and look upward toward that heaven that is but the limit of the water in which we’ve already drowned. Then there is the sky to cross, and then infinity. Our faith exists, if faith can be said to “exist,” as a plumb line extending from the surface to our bottommost life. Faith does not measure height but sounds down into depths. A prayer is but a vibration along faith’s taut plumb line, so that the self on the surface knows when the self in depth is kneeling down to speak upward, and so returns voice to the vibration. There is no heaven for us but the deep.

Things it is like: The works of W. G. Sebald and Geoff Dyer. A neural network.


Things it is not like: Non-dairy creamer.