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11 Things You Might Not Know About Moby-Dick

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I. W. Taber, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Moby-Dick is considered a classic, but neither the genius of Herman Melville nor his grand masterpiece were fully recognized until well after the author’s death. 

1. TWO WHALES HELPED INSPIRE THE STORY.

The character of Moby Dick is larger than life, but this is an instance where truth is as strange (if not stranger) than fiction. The white whale is based on a real-life cetacean called Mocha Dick. Named after the Chilean island of Mocha (near which the beast was first encountered), he was an albino sperm whale with a formidable reputation. Over 70 feet long, the mammal was famous for swimming gently next to the whaling boats. On the first sign of aggression, however, the whale would spring into action and try to destroy any boat that attacked him. When the notorious animal was finally brought down circa 1839, at least 19 harpoons were found lodged in his sides. The following year, The Knickerbocker Magazine ran an article entitled “Mocha Dick: or The White Whale of the Pacific.” For his novel, Melville would replace the word “Mocha” with “Moby” (though no one is sure why). But the tale was also heavily influenced by an event that had taken place in the south Pacific over a decade before Mocha Dick’s demise.

On November 20, 1820, a Nantucket whaling ship called the Essex was rammed and sunk by a different angry sperm whale. The 20-man crew survived the assault by climbing onto three rowboats, but their troubles were just beginning. With minimal supplies, the men drifted for four months and over 3000 miles. Most of them died en route, and those who didn’t cannibalized the deceased before being rescued near Chile.

2. MELVILLE MOVED WHILE WRITING IT.

The author started penning Moby-Dick in 1850 while living at the family's New York City home. That summer, Melville relocated to Pittsfield, Massachusetts; he finished Moby-Dick in the spring of 1851.

3. A MINOR CHARACTER WAS AN HOMAGE TO MELVILLE’S UNCLE.

Captain John D’Wolf II—the husband of Melville's aunt Mary—was a seagoing merchant whose numerous stories had a big influence on young Melville (among other things, the man claimed to have sailed to Russia and crossed Siberia on a dogsled). In his honor, Chapter 45 of Moby-Dick introduces a New Englander named Captain D’Wolf. Coincidentally, the mysterious seaman is said to be the uncle of Ishmael, our narrator.

4. THE BOOK IS DEDICATED TO NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE.

The two literary titans, who lived just six miles apart in Massachusetts, met in 1850. Despite having almost finished Moby-Dick by late 1850, Melville felt compelled to essentially rewrite it from scratch after meeting the man behind The Scarlet Letter; it’s likely that Hawthorne’s influence completely changed the direction and tone of Moby DickThe two writers greatly admired each other: They’d go on to write glowing reviews of each other’s novels, and on more than one occasion, Melville even compared his fellow author to Shakespeare himself.

5. ANOTHER SPERM WHALE ATTACK OCCURRED THE SAME YEAR MOBY-DICK WAS PUBLISHED.

On August 20, 1851, a New Bedford, Massachusetts whaling vessel called the Ann Alexander met a similar end to the Essex. According to the 1902 book Sunk by a Whale, "The whale struck the ship about two feet from the keel ... knocking a great whole entirely through her bottom, through which the water roared and rushed in impetuously. ... The ship sank rapidly, all effort to keep her afloat proving futile."

Just three months later, on November 14, Moby-Dick was released in the U.S. “It is really & truly a surprising coincidence—to say the least,” Melville wrote in a reply to an acquaintance's letter about the Ann Alexander not long before the book made its stateside debut. “I make no doubt it is Moby Dick himself, for there is no account of his capture after the sad fate of the Pequod … Ye Gods! What a commentator is this Ann Alexander whale. What he has to say is short & pithy & very much to the point. I wonder if my evil art has raised this monster.”

6. THE ORIGINAL BRITISH EDITION WAS PUBLISHED WITHOUT THE EPILOGUE.

A month before making its American debut, Moby-Dick was published in the UK, where Victorian editors heavily revised the manuscript without Melville’s consent. There were about 600 differences between the original American and British editions. Thirty-five passages were completely omitted from the latter—including the epilogue, in which Ishmael explains how he, the sole survivor of the Pequod's sinking, lived to tell the tale. Without that key segment, the novel makes little sense.

Through no fault of Melville’s, critics were quick to pounce on a plot hole that hadn’t previously existed. “How does it happen that the narrator survived to tell the story?” Dublin University Magazine asked. Over in the U.S., the situation worsened: Rather than review Moby-Dick for themselves, many American newspapers simply reprinted scathing comments from abroad—even though the stateside edition actually retained Melville’s epilogue. Melville’s greatest work became both a critical and financial flop.

During the 1920s, various reprints popped up in the UK, but these also axed Moby-Dick’s final chapter. Gradually, however, Ishmael’s fate became widely known across the pond as newer and more complete editions—such as Hendricks House’s “definitive” 1952 re-release—were released.

7. ONLY 3715 COPIES WERE EVER PURCHASED DURING MELVILLE’S LIFETIME.

By comparison, Typee—his first novel—sold three times as many. In the states, Melville’s total earnings from Moby-Dick amounted to a paltry $556.37. His literary career more or less over, the writer returned to New York, where he became a customs inspector in 1863.

8. A POSTHUMOUS REPRINTING SAVED MOBY-DICK FROM OBSCURITY.

When Melville passed away on September 28, 1891, his The New York Times obituary cited him as the author of “Mobie Dick” [PDF]. Readers had to work hard to track down his novels, all of which had gone out of print by 1876.

Then, in late 1891, Moby-Dick was reprinted and, this time around, critics started to take it more seriously. Leading the charge was acclaimed author Carl Van Doren, who’d found a copy at a used book store in 1916 (presumably, this volume included the epilogue) and called it “one of the greatest sea romances in the whole literature of the world” in a 1921 essay. Within the next few decades, Moby-Dick became universally recognized as an American classic.

9. RAY BRADBURY WROTE THE SCREENPLAY FOR THE 1956 MOVIE ADAPTATION.

Though Moby-Dick has been adapted into several films, the 1956 version is the most famous. In 1953 (the same year as Fahrenheit 451’s publication), Ray Bradbury spent eight months hammering out the script for director John Huston. For awhile, he progressed at a snail’s pace. During a 2007 ceremony in which he was awarded a special citation by the Pulitzer Prize jury, Bradbury said: “Finally, in the eighth month, I got out of bed one morning in London, looked in the mirror, and said ‘I am Herman Melville!” Following what he described as “eight hours of passionate, red-hot writing,” Bradbury finished the job, raced over to Huston, and threw the screenplay onto his lap. Upon reading it, the director asked “My god, what happened?” “Behold,” Bradbury shouted, “Herman Melville!”

10. STARBUCKS COFFEE IS NAMED AFTER ONE OF THE MAIN CHARACTERS.

In honor of Captain Ahab’s vessel, the world’s largest coffeehouse company was almost named Pequod. Co-founder Gordon Bowker really liked this idea, but his creative partner Terry Heckler was much less enthusiastic. “No one’s going to drink a cup of Pee-quod,” he said. Instead, the company christened itself after Mr. Starbuck, Ahab’s first mate and an oft-ignored voice of reason.

11. A PREHISTORIC SPERM WHALE WAS DUBBED LIVYATAN MELVILLEI IN 2010.

Even Ahab might think twice before messing with this thing. Though roughly the same length as a modern sperm whale, the creature had a far more powerful bite with a nightmarish set of teeth. “Some of the biggest ones are 36 centimeters long and 12 centimeters wide, and are probably the biggest predatory teeth ever discovered,” paleontologist Olivier Lambert told New Scientist. Twelve to 13 million years ago, it likely dined on smaller whales. Fittingly, Lambert and his colleagues gave Moby-Dick’s creator a posthumous shout-out by calling their monster Livyatan melvillei.

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15 Powerful Quotes From Margaret Atwood
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It turns out the woman behind such eerily prescient novels as The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake is just as wise as her tales are haunting. Here are 15 of the most profound quips from author, activist, and Twitter enthusiast Margaret Atwood, who was born on this day in 1939.

1. On her personal philosophy

 “Optimism means better than reality; pessimism means worse than reality. I’m a realist.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

2. On the reality of being female

“Men often ask me, Why are your female characters so paranoid? It’s not paranoia. It’s recognition of their situation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

3. On limiting how her politics influence her characters

“You know the myth: Everybody had to fit into Procrustes’ bed and if they didn’t, he either stretched them or cut off their feet. I’m not interested in cutting the feet off my characters or stretching them to make them fit my certain point of view.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

4. On so-called “pretty” works of literature

“I don’t know whether there are any really pretty novels … All of the motives a human being may have, which are mixed, that’s the novelists’ material. … We like to think of ourselves as really, really good people. But look in the mirror. Really look. Look at your own mixed motives. And then multiply that.”

— From a 2010 interview with The Progressive

5. On the artist’s relationship with her fans

“The artist doesn’t necessarily communicate. The artist evokes … [It] actually doesn’t matter what I feel. What matters is how the art makes you feel.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

6. On the challenges of writing non-fiction

“When I was young I believed that ‘nonfiction’ meant ‘true.’ But you read a history written in, say, 1920 and a history of the same events written in 1995 and they’re very different. There may not be one Truth—there may be several truths—but saying that is not to say that reality doesn’t exist.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

7. On poetry

“The genesis of a poem for me is usually a cluster of words. The only good metaphor I can think of is a scientific one: dipping a thread into a supersaturated solution to induce crystal formation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

8. On being labeled an icon

“All these things set a standard of behavior that you don’t necessarily wish to live up to. If you’re put on a pedestal you’re supposed to behave like a pedestal type of person. Pedestals actually have a limited circumference. Not much room to move around.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

9. On how we’re all born writers

“[Everyone] ‘writes’ in a way; that is, each person has a ‘story’—a personal narrative—which is constantly being replayed, revised, taken apart and put together again. The significant points in this narrative change as a person ages—what may have been tragedy at 20 is seen as comedy or nostalgia at 40.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

10. On the oppression at the center of The Handmaid's Tale

“Nothing makes me more nervous than people who say, ‘It can’t happen here. Anything can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances.” 

— From a 2015 lecture to West Point cadets

11. On the discord between men and women

“‘Why do men feel threatened by women?’ I asked a male friend of mine. … ‘They’re afraid women will laugh at them,’ he said. ‘Undercut their world view.’ … Then I asked some women students in a poetry seminar I was giving, ‘Why do women feel threatened by men?’ ‘They’re afraid of being killed,’ they said.”

— From Atwood’s Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, 1960-1982

12. On the challenges of expressing oneself

“All writers feel struck by the limitations of language. All serious writers.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

13. On selfies

“I say they should enjoy it while they can. You’ll be happy later to have taken pictures of yourself when you looked good. It’s human nature. And it does no good to puritanically say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be doing that,’ because people do.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

14. On the value of popular kids' series (à la Harry Potter and Percy Jackson)

"It put a lot of kids onto reading; it made reading cool. I’m sure a lot of later adult book clubs came out of that experience. Let people begin where they are rather than pretending that they’re something else, or feeling that they should be something else."

— From a 2014 interview with The Huffington Post

15. On why even the bleakest post-apocalyptic novels are, deep down, full of hope

“Any novel is hopeful in that it presupposes a reader. It is, actually, a hopeful act just to write anything, really, because you’re assuming that someone will be around to [read] it.”

— From a 2011 interview with The Atlantic 

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China's New Tianjin Binhai Library is Breathtaking—and Full of Fake Books
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A massive new library in Tianjin, China, is gaining international fame among bibliophiles and design buffs alike. As Arch Daily reports, the five-story Tianjin Binhai Library has capacity for more than 1 million books, which visitors can read in a spiraling, modernist auditorium with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

Several years ago, municipal officials in Tianjin commissioned a team of Dutch and Japanese architects to design five new buildings, including the library, for a cultural center in the city’s Binhai district. A glass-covered public corridor connects these structures, but the Tianjin Binhai Library is still striking enough to stand out on its own.

The library’s main atrium could be compared to that of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum in New York City. But there's a catch: Its swirling bookshelves don’t actually hold thousands of books. Look closer, and you’ll notice that the shelves are printed with digital book images. About 200,000 real books are available in other rooms of the library, but the jaw-dropping main room is primarily intended for socialization and reading, according to Mashable.

The “shelves”—some of which can also serve as steps or seating—ascend upward, curving around a giant mirrored sphere. Together, these elements resemble a giant eye, prompting visitors to nickname the attraction “The Eye of Binhai,” reports Newsweek. In addition to its dramatic main auditorium, the 36,000-square-foot library also contains reading rooms, lounge areas, offices, and meeting spaces, and has two rooftop patios.

Following a three-year construction period, the Tianjin Binhai Library opened on October 1, 2017. Want to visit, but can’t afford a trip to China? Take a virtual tour by checking out the photos below.

A general view of the Tianjin Binhai Library
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A woman taking pictures at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A man visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A woman looking at books at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

[h/t Newsweek]

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