three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
46-May-June-2010
By: 
Philip Hoare
user_rating: 
0

In Search of the Giants of the Sea

A-The WhalePhilip Hoare, an English writer and journalist, is best known for his books on Noel Coward, Oscar Wilde, and Victorian-era Utopia. The Whale won the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction.

The Topic: Starting with that great book of the sea--Herman Melville's Moby-Dick--and employing a literary lens throughout, Philip Hoare explores the tragic interaction between whales and people from 18th-century New England to today. In charting the whale's endangered status, he presents staggering statistics: in the mid-18th century, 5,000 street lamps in London burned whale oil every night; a century later, the United States exported a million gallons of whale oil to Europe annually. Above all, like the narrator of Moby-Dick, Hoare "sought to discover why I too felt haunted by the whale, by the forlorn expression on the beluga's face, by the orca's impotent fin, by the insistent images in my head." And this, a love letter to that species, explains why.
Ecco. 453 pages. $27.99. ISBN: 9780061976216

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Where there is a place on the planet likely to harbor whales of just about any description, Hoare is likely to have visited it, to have read about it, to have studied its every contour. The Whale results from years of devoted researching, talking, kayaking, diving and swimming; it is equal parts almanac, literary study, celebration, elegy, eulogy and literary travel essay." Gregory McNamee

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The Whale is a quirky, meditative book, thick with cunning black-and-white drawings and photographs. ... English majors, frankly, are going to like it better than biologists will." Karen R. Long

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Although the basic story of the near-extermination of the great whales is well known, the numbers Hoare cites are staggering. ... Sometimes Hoare's enthusiasm for his subject carries him away: He speaks of whales with old harpoon marks as bearing the ‘scars of their martyrdom' and describes them as ‘animals before the Fall, innocent of sin.'" Charles Solomon

Christian Science Monitor 3 of 5 Stars
" Hoare's own attempts to create grand poetic prose aren't as successful as Melville's, especially when they're larded with sentimentality." Randy Dotinga

Critical Summary

Hoare's obsession with whales results in a fascinating exploration of the whale's role in literature, history, travel, science, and society. In his attempt to understand the whale's "mysterious narrative power," Hoare uses Moby-Dick as his touchstone, but he explores other writers' perceptions and descriptions of whales as well. He is a fascinating, quirky, compelling writer, but The Whale, though filled with scientific fact, will likely interest more literary types. A few critics commented that Hoare's fervor sometimes gets the better of him, and his anthropomorphism irked others. Above all, however, The Whale is a worthy mediation on the power of the endangered whale and the mysteries of nature.