Like all great epics but one, Moby Dick is really a library of interconnected stories. It’s not just that the doomed Pequod hears stories from every vessel she encounters in her captain’s mad search for the white whale, and it’s not just that we the readers hear extended stories about those and other vessels from Ishmael our narrator, and it’s not just that Ishmael is telling us the Pequod‘s story and, by extension, the whole story of whales and whaling; what we tend to forget in the immediacy of Melville’s tale is that the whole narrative is a story, told to us about events that happened a long time ago (“never mind how long precisely”) – and the teller himself is a made-up character, an invention of himself who won’t even tell us his real name (“Ishmael” being a puckish Biblical choice designed to play off the name of the Pequod‘s captain). Stories and digressions open up off the main current of the book in almost endless variety, until they’re finally paired away to one slender narrative of survival – Ishmael, clinging to a floating coffin. And even then, he doesn’t tell us he survived in order to reach his dear home again, or to seek revenge on Moby Dick; he survives to tell the tale.

Given this kind of multiplicity – and the tiny, related fact that the book is the greatest American novel of the 19th century – it’s not surprising that Moby Dick has had as many editions as there are grains of sand on the shore. I dearly love the book and have read it more times than I could readily count (and in more places, including on the open water of all of the world’s seas and once, in its entirety, in New Bedford), but even I couldn’t even begin to guess at all the various paperbacks and hardcovers that exist out there in the wilds of the used-book world. I’ve seen perhaps two or three hundred such, but that’s a drop in the proverbial bucket.

And naturally, I’ve developed favorites. Considering how often I’ve read the book – and more importantly, how often I’ve recommended it to others and urged them to read it – I could scarcely help it. There’s an aura about Moby Dick, I sometimes think; like War & Peace, it’s one of those overwhelming books that even faint-hearted readers somehow want to tackle (I’ve recently had it proven to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji does not have that aura, which is a pity, since it’s really quite good too). Some of this might derive from its primary colors – a man’s tale (no female characters at all, unless some of the more scurrilous postmodern theories about the whale itself are to be believed), full of adventure and yet delving into deeper meanings, and easily summarized: everybody knows the basic outline of what happens in Moby Dick, whereas not even Proust had the faintest idea how his own narcoleptic prose-epic ended.

When you’re in the business of handing people books you want them to read, it behooves you to give some thought to your editions; a careless match could cost Moby Dick a reader, after all, and I want it to have as many readers as possible. And it’s not just new readers: at different times of the day or seasons of the year, I myself will want a slightly different Moby Dick. So I’ve picked my eight favorites (in deference to John Parke’s wonderful 1955 essay “Seven Moby Dicks”) to illustrate the gamut.

We start off with paperbacks, because Moby Dick is a big book, and squat, hand-friendly paperbacks are the best, most inviting way to grapple with it (well, the second most inviting way – the most inviting way would be to carry around an abridged edition, like the type that flourished in the 1930s and ’40s, but our modern publishing world, getting so many of its sales from academia, has largely done away with abridgments, and rightly so; I myself have often urged people to read an abridged version of the book – but one of my own devising, consisting of check-marked chapters in the un-abridged version, so the reader is always free to go back and explore – an abridgment that actually has chunks cut out removes that option). And we start off with the most superficial reason to pick a book: its cover. In this case it’s the somber, oddly threatening dark green seascape of the 1967 Bantam Classic edition (the paperback makes no cover-attribution, so to this day I still have no idea whose painting I’ve been admiring all these decades).

But the old Bantam Classics weren’t manufactured to last even twenty years, much less half a century, and often when you encounter that 1967 volume, it’s falling to pieces. Not so our next paperback choice, the old 1961 Signet Classic! These volumes were put together with rock-solid workmanship and on higher than average quality paper, and the results are visible even in this unthinkable year of 2010: this Moby Dick is a survivor – and if the movies are to be believed, it’ll out-last us all, since it’s this old Signet paperback that’s on the bookshelf of the evil Khan’s makeshift bookshelf in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. And the volume boasts more than superior spine-glue! It’s also got a feisty afterword by Denham Sutcliffe, then of Kenyon College, that includes this passage:

Everybody knows before he opens it that Moby Dick is a symbolical book, loaded with “hidden meanings.” Before he has read fifty pages he begins asking, “What does this bench stand for? Could it be Calvinism?” Or, “What does the chowder stand for?” Such an approach does violence both to the book and to the technique of symbolism. It translates a great story into a parlor-game cryptogram and it makes a trivial mystery out of one of the basic operations of the human imagination.

Neither the Bantam nor the Signet sports much in the way of critical apparatus (although the Bantam does include the aforementioned John Parke essay). For that, we have to turn to those twin titans of popular-run critical editions, Penguin Classics and Oxford World’s Classics. The latter is edited by Tony Tanner with fearful miscomprehension (sample gibberish: “Given the radically orphaned condition of modern man, a danger that Melville could see was the accelerating drift into disconnectedness of the non-affiliated contemporary individual”), but it includes fascinating correspondence between Melville and his book’s dedicatee, Nathaniel Hawthorne, including this typically fascinating aside:

Lord [wrote Melville], when shall we be done growing? As long as we have anything more to do, we have done nothing. So, now, let us add Moby Dick to our blessing, and step from that. Leviathan is not the biggest fish; – I have heard of Krakens.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Penguin editor – waggishly called Harold Beaver – who appends to his own edition hundreds of pages of end-notes. It’s the work of a madman, and it makes the Penguin hands down the most critically overloaded edition ever nominally intended for a mass-market audience. If you’re a reader who likes this kind of herbaceous annotation (I sure as Hell am), this is the edition for you.

But all mass-market paperbacks of Moby Dick share at least one limitation, and in the case of this particular book, it’s a crippling one: their size and price prohibit illustrations. All epics invite illustrated editions (poor aforementioned Genji has an absolutely gorgeous one, also from Penguin), but few do so more readily than Moby Dick, mainly because Melville is such a visual writer and renders this book is such childishly primary colors: Ahab has a peg-leg, and sperm whales are all head and tail – a child could draw either one and elicit recognition from the literati. So the other half of our eight choices today will be illustrated versions.

And we’ll start with what was once the best-known (and still holds the records for the best-selling) such edition: the old Modern Library edition illustrated by Rockwell Kent. Kent originally did his work for R. R. Donnelley and Sons in 1930, and the edition quickly went through a boat-load of reprints – not only because then, as now, Modern Library made some of the best-designed and most reasonably-priced classics, but also because Kent’s style of illustration was enjoying a vogue at the time (readers of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology will recognize that style, with varying degrees of affection) – heavy black lines, straightforward, usually eye-level compositions designed to be self-consciously nostalgic for woodcuts of the previous century. Kent’s work on Moby Dick went far beyond the standard commissioned seven-picture deal: his illustrations positively fill the book, and he balances full-page set-pieces with dozens of spot-illustrations. Melville’s book frequently calls for such aids to the reader; who in this day and age will be able to picture a case-bucket, or a monkey-rope? Virtually every time such a term appears, a dutiful Kent rendering of it won’t be far behind. It might not be our current notion of art, but it’s oddly comforting.

Moby Dick has always been popular with various ‘illustrated classics’ done for children over the years, and you’d think one of the goals of any such series would be to produce just that sense of comfort. But in 1990 Berkley Publishing Group enlisted fan-favorite comic book artist Bill Sienkiewicz to do a fully-illustrated graphic novel of the book, and the results are anything but comforting. With its garishly varying colors and its great heaping helpings of the book’s text (unlike most other illustrated classics, this is an abridgment, not a bowdlerized retelling), this Sienkiewicz Moby Dick, despite its provenance, is one of the finest and most spellbinding editions of Melville ever produced.

The prize of actual finest edition, however, goes to the 1979 Arion Press edition that was later brought out by the University of California. The paperback edition is, fittingly, white and oversized, and the whole thing is profusely illustrated by Barry Moser, who clearly has Rockwell Kent peering over his shoulder throughout. Moser provides several full-page dramatic drawings, but like Kent, he also gives us dozens of spot-illustrations of everything from a mast-head to a quarterdeck to a great squid like the one that gets Ahab’s murderous hopes up at one point in the book. This gorgeous edition is proudly, defiantly just the book – no Introduction or Afterword, no essays or end-notes: just Melville’s strange, rolling prose and Moser’s clear, evocative black-and-white engravings. It might not be the most handy version to pack in the bottom of a footlocker, but it belongs on a high shelf with some of the prettiest editions ever made.

And my personal favorite, out of all the candidates? Oddly enough, it would be the 1994 specially-commissioned remainder edition put out by Barnes & Noble as part of a short-lived stab at making a distinctive shelf of ‘classics’ (the Dracula and the Gulliver’s Travels are also worth finding, but the Moby Dick is the best). B&N brought together the text, some letters, some reviews, a dictionary of terms, a whiny-pants introduction by Mark Helprin, and twelve gorgeous full-color page-sized illustrations by Mark Summers, and they topped the whole thing off with Hart Crane’s haunting poem “At Melville’s Tomb”:

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge

The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath

An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,

Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,

The calyx of death’s bounty giving back

A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,

The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,

Its lashing charmed and malice reconciled,

Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;

And silent answers crept across the stars.

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive

No farther tides … High in the azure steeps

Monody shall not wake the mariner.

This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

Summers’ drawings are as stark as Kent’s and as vibrant as Moser’s, and their relative infrequency (no spot-illustrations here) gives them a distinct power all their own. This is the edition of Moby Dick that forms my own Ahab-like obsession whenever I’m book-hunting, since B&N only did a limited run and it’s consequently somewhat hard to find. I’ve never, in fact, come across it randomly – when it first came to the downtown Boston Barnes & Noble, I, bowled over by its beauty, bought all the copies in the shipment, and those are the only ones I’ve ever seen. If I were at all comfortable finding used books online, this is one of the only ones I’d seek.

There are countless other editions, of course, spurred not only by creativity (there was recently a childrens pop-up version) but by cupidity (for good or ill – mostly ill – the book is always assigned in schools, so every publisher in the world has a financial motive for bringing out a slightly more expensive paperback every two or three years), but these eight form the nucleus of my own appreciation, and the first two have been tried and treasured traveling companions and, when opened, bear still the salt-sea tangs of places long ago. Countless editions, yes, but I feel certain one of these eight will serve just about any reader still willing to commit themselves to the deep.

  • GW

    A lovely entry! I have the B&N edition myself, but I can’t seem to remember where I got it. Hee.

  • JC

    “but one” …… The Divine Comedy?

    I loved this post. That Bantam was my mom’s college edition and I remember gazing at it portentously and long before I finally opened it to read it & saw it fall apart in my hands. I went out and bought an old hardcover — which I read, and loved — and replaced that one much later with a Barnes & Noble hardcover made from the very same plates! (This one being different, obviously, than the one you write about in your post — and of course its the one I love best; its almost inseparable, for me from the story itself).

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  • mark summers

    Hi Steve,

    Wonderful article. I stumbled upon it totally by accident and I’m blushing from all the kind words about the edition I did for Barnes and Noble. If you want to contact me through my agent, Richard Solomon, I’d be delighted to send you a small limited edition lithograph of the portrait of Quequeg.

  • Charles Frith

    Terrific. Did you get blog the Queequeg?

  • skip

    If Grateful Dead fans are Deadheads, what are Moby-Dick fans?

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