The text begins with the familiar words "Call me Ishmael," but that's the last sentence in which Melville's distinctive voice rings out; it quickly moves on to more generic prose: "Call me Ishmael. I am a schoolmaster, and whenever life got me down, I would leave my job and head for one special place." Just in case we didn't get the point, the facing page features a line drawing of a man looking out to sea above the caption, "The Sea Restores Ishmael's Spirits."
This book, brought to me by a wonderful English major, made me want to leave my job and head for one special place where such bowdlerization would be considered complete balderdash. The book is the Baronet Great Illustrated Classics version of Moby Dick, in which one Shirley Bogart adapts Melville's text for readers who wish Melville's style had been strongly influenced by the Dick and Jane readers. The text is nearly 250 pages long, but the print is large and friendly and the drawings present a world which Melville would have relegated to the chapter on The Monstrous Pictures of Whales.
Bogart's chapter titles succinctly sum up the action: A Strange Roommate; The Mad Prophet of Doom; Queequeg Does It Again! The final chapter is titled "I Alone Survived" and it begins, "The story's done, and I alone survived the wreck," thereby assuring that even inattentive readers will grasp the essential point.
Bogart's text is characterized by an amazing economy of line, but it lacks Melville's memorable rhythm, his complex rolling sentences as vast and profound as the sea itself. It also lacks Melville's love for suspense; several important mysteries are demystified right at the start within the dramatis personae, which informs readers that Moby Dick is "the Great White Whale with almost human-like intelligence" while Ahab is "the fanatic one-legged commander of the Pequod who swears vengeance on a gigantic white whale who crippled him." Good to get that cleared up right up front so we don't have to waste time sussing out the subtleties of Melville's characterizations.
Similarly, the book leaves out any passages that distract from the action, like Father Mapple's sermon and all those passages about cetology and pictures of squashes masquerading as whales and the functions of all those tools and ropes and bits of whaling paraphernalia. There's also no room for metaphysical musings or even Melville's playful sense of humor. A writer--excuse me, "adapter"--would have to work pretty hard to drain Melville's prose of its richly mordant humor, but somehow, Shirley Bogart does the trick.
I know why books like this exist--perhaps some small child will read it and become enamored of Melville's world and later move on to encounter the real thing, like the child whose addiction to candy cigarettes leads him to emulate the Marlboro Man. But that doesn't mean I have to like it. Melville's story without Melville's prose and Melville's metaphysical speculation and Melville's subtle characterization just isn't Moby Dick at all, whatever the cover of the book might say. Call me whatever you want, but don't call Shirley Bogart's book Moby Dick.