Herman Melville is 200, but 'Moby-Dick' is very 2019

Illustration from "Moby-Dick" by Herman Melville (1819-1891). The novel was first published in 1851.

David Shaerf is a documentary filmmaker and professor at Oakland University in Michigan. His film about "Moby-Dick" and the artists it has inspired, "Call Us Ishmael," is distributed by Gravitas Ventures and is available on Blu-ray and DVD through Amazon and on streaming services iTunes and Google Play. The views expressed here are his. Read more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)Along with so many, I was first subjected to "Moby-Dick" when I was still a teenager, being forced to read it as part of an American literature survey course. I was not a fan of it-- I certainly could never have anticipated I would one day make a film about it. I thought it was a laborious read. Its narrative was glacially slow, and the titular antagonist doesn't even make an appearance until the final pages of the novel. I resented the book and was quite glad to put it down and (hopefully) never touch it again.

David Shaerf
I didn't get it, but looking back, I wanted to. I picked up a tattered copy of the book some years later, determined to understand what all the fuss was about, and it had an immediate impact on me. Even by the opening paragraph of the book spoke to me in ways it could not have possibly in years prior. The narrator, in a fit of ennui, tells of his desire to head to sea as a remedy to his depression. I get this. What better medication for boredom or anxiety could there be than to run off to an adventure on the romantic high seas? There is a universality to the glumness that Melville spoke of - even he says, "almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me."
    My desire to delve deeper into the world of "Moby-Dick" led me to embark on a documentary film project speaking to the community of people who carry on the legacy of Melville's masterwork. While I was filming "Call Us Ishmael," I went to the New Bedford Whaling Museum where there is an annual marathon reading of the book. Patrons of the museum spend a full 24 hours reading their well-thumbed copies out loud to one another. It's an opportunity for those who share this obsessive love of the book to connect with one another -- like a family reunion, almost.
      Here's something you may not know: "Moby-Dick" is hilarious, as well as moving. It's also an important book as we stand here in 2019.
      It was only upon returning to the book that I came to understand that Melville wasn't simply writing about whales, he was writing about the human condition (and whales): "All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life."
      Thursday is the 200th birthday of Herman Melville, celebrated author of "Moby-Dick." As a young man, Melville worked on a whaleship in the Pacific. During his travels he heard the story of a whale that rammed and sunk the Whaleship Essex. It was this woeful tale that he had in mind when he began writing "Moby-Dick."
      It was long after his passing in 1891, in the 1920s, that Melville's novel became part of the literary conversation as a classic, standing alongside the likes of The Odyssey, Don Quixote and so many more -- a book cherished by many, though likely read by fewer. As Melville turns 200, his work is still resonant and perhaps even more meaningful in 2019 than it was during his own lifetime.
      There is something ostensibly prophetic about the text of "Moby-Dick." While Melville wrote the book ensconced in the bucolic mid-19th century New England countryside, reading the book today it feels like a contemporary piece of literary fiction. Melville covers topics such as race and religion, gender and sexuality, environmentalism and politics in ways that seem much more aligned with contemporary sensibilities than the more puritanical mindset that prevailed during Melville's lifetime.
      Even in the first 100 pages of the book, we see Melville touch on sexuality in ways that feel very contemporary: our narrator, Ishmael, befriends and awkwardly shares a bed with Queequeg, a noble Pacific Islander and cannibal. By morning, [he] "found Queequeg's arm thrown over [him] in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought [he] had been his wife." Melville was aware of the social norms he was questioning. In his correspondence with Nathaniel Hawthorne prior to publication, Melville said, "I have written a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb."
      Speaking to the political, it's almost as though Melville's book serves as a warning. In the book, Ahab, the captain helming the doomed whaleship Pequod, ignoring the mandate of his employers, makes it his mission to find and kill that singular whale who took his leg from him. The political allegories are plentiful -- whether searching for Moby Dick (the whale, not the book) is a stand-in for George W. Bush's hunt for Osama Bin Laden, the GOP's quest to repeal the Affordable Care Act or, indeed, our current president's persistent cries for a border wall. In all cases, they speak to the "Ahabian" relentlessness of their pursuits. When his intentions are questioned by one of the crew, Ahab says, "That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me." If only Ahab had Twitter at his disposal.
        As Melville turns 200, I think about "Moby-Dick" and its relevancy today. There's an aura around "Moby-Dick" for those who haven't read it. It's an intimidating book -- its reputation of being impenetrable is unwarranted, but still ever-present. Why is that? I think, at least in part, this is to do with the book having been a required reading at high schools across the US for so long. Even the most renowned Melville scholars I interviewed in "Call Us Ishmael" talked of having negative experiences with the novel upon first encounter. For a book so lush, filled with humor and philosophical digressions, perhaps some of this can be lost on the younger reader.
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        Perhaps the biggest hurdle is that the book is so much more than the plot of Ahab's obstinate pursual of The Whale. It's the spaces in-between that make the book an enduring classic. "Moby-Dick" is a book that rewards life experience. The more scars you have, the more meaningful it becomes. I have reread "Moby-Dick" five times, and with each reading I garner something new and enlightening. It is a book that has inspired artists, poets, musicians, filmmakers and many more to do great things. On Herman Melville's 200th, I hope that it will inspire you as well.