... a light-hearted and incredibly enjoyable read that manages somehow, at the right moments, to be both broad and narrow in scope. It should be required reading for anyone attempting Moby-Dick ... No captive of the library, King is an experienced seaman and an open-minded and intrepid guide ... Inevitably, a book about a book will begin to assume the shape of its source material. Even so, King writes ably and in scholarly detail about albatrosses, ambergris, baleen, barnacles, seals, sharks, sperm whale behavior and language, swordfish, typhoons, and all sorts of marine and cetological marginalia ... If there is a gentle criticism to make, it is that King writes so well about the places he visits and the people he meets that I found myself hoping for more of his reportage. He is too talented and clear-eyed a writer to confine himself to literary criticism.
A fascinating, timely exploration of Melville's (and our) watery world ... a reading for our Anthropocenic era, a chance to find symbols appropriate for our current environmental crisis in this 1851 masterpiece ... [King] combines his love of Melville’s novel with a technical background that is rare among literary scholars ... The science in Ahab’s Rolling Sea includes a lively review of Melville’s research. One wonderful aspect of the book is its illustrations, both 19th-century engravings familiar to Melville and contemporary graphics that bring the information up to date ... As in Melville’s novel, the science here is accurate.
What can we learn from Melville’s workup? King recovers lost resonances ... To ‘Moby Dickheads’, Ahab’s Rolling Sea is a treasure trove. King situates Melville as a person of his time, writing amid a quickening pace of discoveries about the natural world but, pre-On the Origin of Species, inclined to couch them as further disclosures of God’s design. Still, Moby-Dick prefigures Darwin ‘by de-centering the human’ ... Less convincing is King’s gloss on the book as a ‘proto-environmentalist’ text, with Ahab as a stand-in for ‘Big Oil’.
Are you a Moby-Dickhead? If so, are you enough of a Moby-Dickhead to have visited the Phallological Museum in Iceland to inspect a sperm whale’s penis? This is one of the many intrepid expeditions undertaken by Richard King in the course of researching Ahab’s Rolling Sea. His book, like Moby-Dick itself, tells you everything you ever wanted to know about whales but were too ashamed to ask ... [King's] curiosity about nature co-exists with and derives from a ruthless desire to work out how best to exploit it ... So quite a lot of fishful thinking is required to support King’s claim that Moby-Dick is an ecological fable. And when he moves from whales to humans his perspective seems askew ... Moby-Dick is such an extraordinary and impossible success not because it’s a fable about man’s environmental overreach but because it is several distinct things at once, things that at a radical level don’t add up ... Certainly one can see in Melville’s heirs...a premonitory recognition of the damage done by human beings to marine ecology, but Melville’s gaze is always that squinting vision of the mid-19th-century adventurer-cum-naturalist-cum-money-maker, for whom a whale is a fascinating creature partly because of what you can get for its blubber, and partly for the beauty you can see inside when you chop off its head.