Book Review: Leviathan by Philip Hoare

By Juliana Adelman

leviathanA few weeks ago in a charity shop I bought my son an innocuous looking book entitled The Blue Whale.  We were about ten pages into reading it when, without warning, I turned the page to find a scene of gore that might have been directed by Quentin Tarantino.  Flipping quickly past, the next page showed cozy domestic images of people using products derived from the previous page’s massacre: margarine, hair products, make up, lamps, brushes.  Most of us hardly think about whaling these days.  In fact, whaling was still a substantial industry in Britain in the 1950s.  The international moratorium on whaling has only been in place since 1986 and is still ignored by some countries.  During the nineteenth century whaling was a huge and highly profitable industry.  It dominated the east coast of America, leaving a legacy of whaling towns (Pronvincetown, Nantucket, New Bedford) and inspiring the classic novel Moby Dick.

Leviathan is a history of whaling as well as a kind of literary journey.  Hoare traces the origins of human interest in and exploitation of the whale using Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as a central theme.  He combines natural history with details of Melville’s life and accounts of his own (Hoare’s) fascination with whales.  The book is not structured historically, despite being historical.  Instead, Hoare uses three parallel narrative strands: his own research process, Melville’s life, and the story of Moby Dick.  This melting pot approach to writing should be confusing but it’s not.  In fact, it is satisfyingly organic.   Hoare successfully evokes the whale not as a bland and silent object of human sympathy but as a mysterious, even frightening, creature which humans will never understand.  Herein lies the success, for me, of the book.  Too often contemporary writers succumb to the illusion that scientific facts add up to understanding.  We seem to implicitly accept the idea that the correct experience of nature is scientific, unemotional and neutral despite the fact that we almost always react emotionally to animals.  Hoare embraces this aspect of human-animal relationships, probing nineteenth-century awe of the whale alongside his own.  The book is also stuffed with facts, but they never overwhelm the text or interrupt the reading.

I won’t beat around the bush, I absolutely loved this book.  My biggest complaint is that I wanted more.  I thought Hoare might have turned his keen eye towards the origins of the ‘save the whales’ campaign just has he has for the exploitation which led to it.  I also would have liked more extensive footnoting.  Unfortunately, you have to rely on general chapter references and a special section on the publisher’s website to trace Hoare’s research.  Obviously a concession to the wider audience for the book, it is nonetheless annoying.  Very occasionally the links between events in Melville’s life and events in Moby Dick seem a little heavy-handed.  For example, Hoare needlessly points to a particular attack on a whaling boat by a whale as a source for Melville when the reader can be left to draw his or her own conclusions.   Nevertheless, these minor quibbles won’t in any way detract from your potential enjoyment of this book. 

Reading Leviathan also made me think about the value of the scientific method in history.  I certainly wouldn’t dispense with referencing, but I was struck with how much more interesting history writing is when the personality of the writer is not carefully expunged.  I’m not saying we should all start trying to turn our archival work into an epic quest of personal discovery, but perhaps removing ourselves from the writing is not only a bit dull but also a bit false. We don’t come by research topics by accident, I wonder is it important to pretend that we do?

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4 Responses to “Book Review: Leviathan by Philip Hoare”

  1. puesoccurrences Says:

    Thanks for the recommendation Juliana! Sounds like a great book and I love the cover. Looking forward to reading it.

    Lisa

  2. puesoccurrences Says:

    Leviathan is a superb book and really well put together. The literary devices that Hoare uses – the personal stories, the parallel narratives, the link to Moby Dick – are so clever that they suck you in and fill you up with information you don’t even feel you have absorbed. I agree too that mystery is part of what gives this book such a strong appeal – giant squids, Inuit arrowheads found lodged in living whales’ skin over a hundred years after they ceased to be used, the manner in which Hoare manages to convey the enormity of the mammals without resorting to lengths and measures. That fear or sense of trepidation appeals directly to our humanity, something that Hoare also does in the way he tells the story of the whaling industry and its towns without being too preachy about the rights and wrongs of what they were doing. And that last chapter, which really brings his own experience to the fore, was just the icing on the cake for me.

    A great read.

    And if I could recommend one more book, which I think he mentions briefly, I’d follow up Leviathan with Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea (2001), the true story of the whaleship Essex that was stove by a whale and reduced its crew to all kinds of deprivations in their efforts to survive.

    Kevin

  3. Eoin Purcell Says:

    I have been meaning to pick up a copy of Leviathan for about 6 months, you’ve convinced me to actually do it now! Bookdepository, here I come!

    Eoin

  4. Pue’s Recommendations for November « Pue’s Occurrences Says:

    […] and the brilliant Philip Hoare book, Leviathan, or the Whale, which Juliana reviewed here. But my favourite discovery of the last month is the Antarctica Blog: a fascinating day-by-day […]

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