Here’s a little experiment: Get out your college copy of Moby-Dick, sit yourself down in a crowded restaurant, open the book to a page near the middle and begin to read. Make sure you hold the book so passers-by can see the binding. Look transfixed. And count how many people approach you with remarks. “A little light reading, eh?” “Trying to impress somebody?” “You’re not really going to read all of that, are you?” Since its publication in 1851 to an indifferent public and mixed reviews, Herman Melville’s saga of a vindictive white whale has become synonymous with Serious Reading, the literary exemplar of high-brow culture. Readers through the decades have been daunted by its length and put off by its tangents (several chapters are devoted to cetology, including one about the sperm whale’s head). Moby-Dick, public consensus has ruled, is not a book to be merely read. It is a book to write a paper about.

So why is it, then, that we lately can’t get enough of the book, or, for that matter, its author? In the past year alone, six books have been spun from Melville’s life and works, including Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife, a novel about the women of Nantucket; Frederick Busch’s The Night Inspector, which features Herman Melville as a fictional character (in his real-life day job as a customs inspector); a book about Frank Stella’s “Moby-Dick” sculpture series, Of Whales and Waves in Paint, on Metal, in Space; and Elizabeth Hardwick’s biography, Herman Melville. Laurie Anderson has toured the world with Songs and Stories From Moby-Dick; French filmmaker Claire Denis has relocated Billy Budd to the West African desert in her film Beau Travail. As Anderson asked in the expansive program notes that accompanied her performance piece, “What is it about Melville that speaks to late-20th-century Americans?”

The current Melville mania is all the more puzzling when you consider that the 19th-century reading public couldn’t have been less interested. “The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer in the course of composition,” wrote Henry F. Chorley in the London Athenaeum, reflecting popular sentiment. Yet what doomed Moby-Dick in its own day — that it’s packed with ideas and facts — has fueled an enduring obsession. The two most recent contributors to the Melville frenzy, Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, and Tim Severin’s In Search of Moby-Dick: The Quest for the Great White Whale, are both investigations of the true stories behind Melville’s narrative — what inspired him, what he knew, and how he knew it.

When Herman Melville, at the age of 22, read Owen Chase’s Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, he was sufficiently moved to plot a novel that would climax with a ship being “stove by a whale,” as Chase so famously put it. Reading of the disaster in Philbrick’s book, you don’t wonder why Melville was captivated by it: What happened to the Essex and its men is fodder for an adventure story as nerve-wracking as the ill-fated expeditions that make modern best-sellers like The Perfect Storm and Into Thin Air. It is suspenseful, heartbreaking and sickening, rife with the kind of human folly and cultural hubris that allow readers to imagine how they would escape such a horrid fate, and make young novelists recklessly philosophical.

It happened on the 20th of November in 1820, 40 miles below the equator, in the Pacific Ocean. Thomas Nickerson, a 15-year-old cabin boy, was at the helm of the Essex when a strange sight appeared off the bow: less than 100 yards away swam an 85-foot sperm whale with no interest in fleeing. Its head was covered with scars. Incredulous, Nickerson and Chase noticed that the whale was picking up speed as it came straight at their ship. “Pull the helm hard up!” Chase shouted to Nickerson. But it was too late. The whale hit hard once, and before Chase had time to react, it struck again — this time forcing the 238-ton vessel backward until it filled with water and sank. It was the first whaleship in recorded history to be deliberately attacked by its intended prey.

Severin begins his quest to understand Melville’s obsession by wondering about that whale. Melville based his white cetacean on a legendary fighting whale known as Mocha Dick; Severin ostensibly sets out to determine whether such a creature ever lived. But his quest is really just an excuse to travel to exotic lands and tell stories about them. Severin, a British travel writer who has devoted his career to, as he puts it, “conducting practical experiments into the truths which lie behind the great legends of our time,” embarks on a mission that yields many poetic and vivid scenes, but few hard truths. On the Marquesan island of Nuka Hiva, he finds neither Queequeg’s fellow cannibals nor a white whale to rival Moby, only remnants of an extinct culture, overrun with taxis and surfers. Among the whale-shark hunters of Pamilacan, he confirms little but the existence of albino manta rays. In Lamalera, a village at the end of the Indonesian archipelago — “the last community on earth where men still regularly hunt sperm whales by hand” — he meets a man who claims to have seen a white sperm whale three weeks prior to Severin’s visit; another man attests to the creature’s violent nature. “The reason we have never harpooned the white whale,” one Lamaleran offers, “is because he never comes to the surface in the normal way like the black whales. For this reason, no one has ever killed a white whale.”

For all the fables Severin gleans from his islanders, none can compare to the retelling of the Essex narrative that begins his book. And Philbrick tells the same story even better.

Adrift in their lifeboats, the stunned castaways could have let the southeasterly trade winds carry them 1,200 miles west to the unfamiliar islands of the Marquesas. The ship’s captain, George Pollard Jr., argued that they at least head for Tahiti, which he believed they could reach in 30 days. But Chase and second mate Matthew Joy had heard accounts of cannibalism on the Marquesas, and knew nothing of Tahiti. They imagined powerful savages who would butcher their own children for a meal, and proposed instead a route to the more familiar coast of South America, 3,000 miles east. They calculated that their provisions would stretch 60 days. Disastrously, Pollard acquiesced.

In the three aimless months they spent on the open seas, circling and backtracking at the mercy of fickle winds, 11 men died of dehydration or starvation. To give the reader a palpable sense of what those months might have been like, Philbrick includes observations from published studies of starvation and thirst. “The tongue swells to such proportions that it squeezes past the jaws,” he reports, quoting a 1906 account by W.J. McGee. “The eyelids crack and the eyeballs begin to weep tears of blood.” The men grew delusional and despondent, “their identities obliterated,” says Philbrick, by sunken eyes and projecting cheekbones. From Chase’s Narrative and Nickerson’s own memoir, he borrows tortured memories of feasting on gooseneck barnacles, of floating for days in deadly calm, of being taunted by sperm whales they no longer had the technology, much less the strength, to kill.

After Joy, who succumbed to tuberculosis, the black crew members, having been less well-nourished to begin with, died first; four were subsequently eaten by their shipmates. One young man, an 18-year-old Nantucket native by the name of Owen Coffin, was executed for food after drawing the short lot. As providence would have it, the good and fearful Quaker men who went to such great lengths to avoid encounters with cannibals became, in their desperation, cannibals themselves.

It was an irony — “the greatest irony of maritime history,” says Severin — not lost on Melville: “All the sufferings of these miserable men of the Essex might, in all human probability, have been avoided,” he wrote in his copy of Chase’s book. “But they feared cannibals.” To read of the Essex, then, is to understand that Melville meant to satirize Nantucket xenophobia when he created Queequeg, Moby-Dick’s affectionate cannibal, just as he sought to condemn their obsessive pursuit of the whale when he gave us Captain Ahab. But if both characters were meant to teach his contemporaries lessons, they work on our contemporaries, too: Both ethnocentricity and futile ambition have stayed right with us into the 21st century. Which is, perhaps, one of the reasons Moby-Dick continues to engage scholars and public alike. And why, after a century and a half of strange popularity, it’s still worth reading in restaurants, even if you have to explain why.

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