Philip Hoare’s “The Whale”: Review

Every now and then you read a book that really inspires you as a writer. A book that makes you think, “I could write that!” because its style is so close to what you want to do as a writer.

But the more you read, the more intimidated you get. The more you see the intricacy of the work. You read as a writer, and recognize the legwork done in libraries, the time spent in the field. And, when you finish the book and see the writer’s saved his best stuff for last… you wonder what you could do that would have a similar impact.

For me, that book was Philip Hoare’s The Whale. I finished it in less than a week, carving out time between writing, teaching and parenting to devour it. It lived in my briefcase many days.

The WhaleIn the book, Hoare traces the cultural history of whales. But he does it by blending science, history, literary analysis and memoir in a way that Alex Ross writes “inspires awe and shame.”

Ross meant awe and shame about whales. Me, I’m feeling awe and shame about the book. Awe in how good it is. Shame because I’m not sure I have the arrogant confidence to do something like it.

Literature drives this book. Even before writing a word of his own text, Hoare quotes Paradise Lost and the Bible (Jonah). Stuff like this is a puppy treat to the literary snob who picked up the book for its main course: Hoare’s discussion of Moby Dick. Both inspiration for his book and enabler of its analysis, Hoare breaks down the story of the book’s creation, applying a new-historicist-style lens to Melville’s book.There’s probably not enough here for the rabid literary scholar or the true fan of the book; Hoare doesn’t break any new critical ground here. But he effectively integrates literature with his explanation of whaling. This is of course completely appropriate, since Melville has Ishmael explain so much about whaling to the reader. So it makes sense for Hoare to quote Ishmael as a reference:

At one end, a sixty-ton animal. At the other, six men. Through the line they could feel the whale; an intimate connection between man and prey. The crew fought hard to haul the creature out of the depths as an angler tussles with a fish; an effort of resistance and power; a tug of war, or a tug of love. Suddenly, their enraged quarry surfaced with an almighty blow. Its very breath was fearful: sailors believed the spout to be acrid, able to burn skin or even, warns Ishmael, cause blindness, ‘if the jet is fairly spouted into your eyes.’ (147)

Hoare weaves literature in and out of his story. He also dips into the world history of whaling, scientific study of whales, popular culture and the economics of whaling. Foes of commercial whaling today will recognize the usual suspects, though they may be annoyed at Hoare’s non-judgmental explanation of the post-war context of Japanese whaling and the role the United States played in jump-starting the industry.

But it’s when Hoare dips into memoir that he’s at his most powerful. “Perhaps it is because I was nearly born underwater,” Hoare opens, making the powerful connection between his own life story and that of whales. There are moments when the connection is forced; moments when it seems the events requiring the personal “I” are used simply to drive the book’s structure, rather than offer any new insight. But the book’s ending—powerful, personal and lovingly written—excuses any conceit. Plus it will make any lover of whales insanely jealous.

It’s a wonderful book—precisely the sort of book I’d like to write. And it’s given me a few ideas about topics I might explore in a similar fashion.

But imagining a book like this and creating it are two very different things. Still, if you’re going to write a book, you might as well start with a good model.

I recommend The Whale for anyone interested in whaling and anyone who appreciates a well-written and wide-ranging narrative.


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