You have two choices available to you:
1. Go to a historical library and study an encyclopaedia specialising in 1850s knowledge of whales.
2. Read Moby Dick.
The advantage of Moby Dick is that it has occasional fiction thrown in. But, no mistakes, most of the time it feels like a thorough review of ALL the information under the good sun on whales. Whale types, whale history, whale legend. Whale insides, whale physiognomy, whale character. Whale hunting ships, whale hunting methods, whale hunting crews. Whale bone, whale oil, whale spouts. Whale movement, whale art, the lot.
I have been DREAMING of whales.
And (whisper it) quite enjoying it.
For someone who vaguely thought Moby Dick was about highwaymen and written by a Brit, it was eye-opening. For those who don’t know, it tells the story of an 1850s whaling trip setting out from the US for southern seas, and frankly that’s all I’d give away if you, like I, are one of the few people in the Western hemisphere ignorant of the story. It’s one of only two novels I’ve ever read that I genuinely felt would be better abridged (I’m looking at you, Anna Karenina.) Although it was rather too elliptical for my tastes, only progressing the story for 1 page in 15, it’s undeniably epic, a word in my top arsenal of praise which I use sparingly. The asides (although frankly the story itself was more of an aside to these roaming, lingering anecdotes) are exhaustive, but in no way dry – they’re parodic, wild, obsessive. In fact dry is the last word you’d use to describe this rambunctious work. Melville has a keen ear for dialogue and his characters’ inner and outer voices are so colourful they leap from the page undeterred by the thick fence of archaisms ye’ing and thou’ing all over the place. Half the time I had no bloody idea who was speaking and rather liked it.
The novel begins and ends with bursts of good ol’ narrative, and the end is particularly rip-roaring and glorious. I clapped the novel shut with a satisfied bloodthirsty ‘ha!,’ neglecting to read a final bibliographical section – enough is enough, Melville. A review I read today opined that the heart of the story happens before the novel begins, and the book itself charts a lengthy but inevitable denouement, and it had a point – not that much happens during the course of the 700 odd pages. The narrator, Ishmael, proved shady and elusive, giving room for endless symbolic readings of him and the ship representing anything and everything, though most popularly, the state of America.
Whipping through this in 2 weeks, I felt guilty when a friend told me his university housemate had studied this for phd and spent 3 years learning archaic sailing terms (what? I thought Ishmael explained the meaning of EVERYTHING on the high seas in the book itself?) I certainly didn’t give this tome the time and attention it deserves, but if you let that put you off you’ve never read anything. So don’t be intimidated: whip away, don’t worry if you’re not 100% sure what’s going on at a given time, get your metaphorical hat on to come up with a wild theory of what it all means, and enjoy the voyage.