"Leviathan, or The Whale"
by Philip Hoare
Reading history and reviews
Finished on 3rd January 2010I've had an interest in whales since reading Listening to Whales by Alexandra Morton last year, but this book wasn't quite what I was expecting. Hoare's interest in whales comes from his fascination with Herman Melville's "Moby Dick", in which the eponymous great white whale is arguably a largely peripheral character - indeed almost a cipher, a mysterious and alien force of nature.
So it is also with much of "Leviathan", which in mirroring "Moby Dick", places much of its focus is on man's relationship (largely in the form of the whaling industry) with whales, rather than on the creatures themselves. Whales are therefore understood somewhat indirectly, through the lens of human experience, not as intelligent and mysterious sea-dwellers but as dangerous monsters whose bodies provided the component parts for food and industry. It's only really towards the end of the book that Hoare seems to focus on whales as beings in their own right (it concludes with his pictures from a whale-watching expedition, of a whale's enormous fluke rising out of and falling into the ocean).
Compared to Morton's book - which tells the story of an increasing understanding of cetecean intelligence - "Leviathan" speaks of how little we still understand or even know about whales remain to us, even as they provided the raw materials (in the form of their meat, blubber, bone and oil) for the foundations of the modern world. Ultimately it's about the largely forgotten shared hidden history between man and whale, and how much we still have to learn.