My favorite books for understanding Herman Melville’s itch for adventure

Why are we passionate about this?

We approached our book, theme, and recommendations as readers and lovers of Melville’s work who were inspired by following in his footsteps to places “whole oceans away,” as he describes the Pacific in Moby-Dick. Melville traveled widely and kept up his travels throughout a lifetime of further exploration, as well as voluminous writing. We want to share the exhilaration of traveling with a writer: that is, by reading of Melville’s travels, traveling to the places he visited, and also hearing from people who know those places too. We hope our book gives readers contact with the many dimensions of global travel, in whatever form they find for themselves.


We wrote...

"Whole Oceans Away": Melville and the Pacific

By Jill Barnum (editor), Wyn Kelley (editor), Christopher Sten (editor)

Book cover of "Whole Oceans Away": Melville and the Pacific

What is our book about?

This is the first essay collection to consider Melville’s novels from the perspective of people in the Pacific Islands. Whether you have read Moby-Dick or not, Melville’s Polynesian adventures, which he converted into often sensational narratives, take readers to fascinating places. He won avid 19th-century admirers for portrayals of lush tropical scenery, tales of purported cannibalism, tattooing, sex, and violence, and often humorous mishaps. Today’s readers will want to know more, and this volume offers 21st-century perspectives on what Melville gleaned from his travels. Most importantly, what Melville described in Moby-Dick as “an everlasting itch for things remote” led to astounding reflections on the world and its splendid varieties of human nature. This book might accompany journeys around the globe—or simply to the bookstore.

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The books we picked & why

Book cover of Herman Melville's Whaling Years

Wyn Kelley and Christopher Sten Why did I love this book?

Wilson Heflin’s indispensable but unfinished account of Melville’s life at sea from 1841-45, here lovingly edited by two experts on Melville and maritime life, unearths the full story and factual basis of Melville’s Pacific travels. Drawing from logbooks, consular records, newspaper accounts, and museum archives from around the world, Heflin reveals what Melville knew and fictionalized in his books. Highly readable for novices and scholars alike, this book provides an exciting entrée into early shipboard adventures and dangers and a chronicle of places and people around the globe—many long gone. 

By Wilson Heflin, Mary K. Bercaw Edwards (editor), Thomas Farel Heffernan (editor)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Herman Melville's Whaling Years as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Based on more than a half-century of research, this work examines on of the most stimulating period's of Melville's life - the four years he spent aboard whaling vessels in the Pacific during the early 1940s.


Book cover of Marquesan Encounters: Melville and the Meaning of Civilization

Wyn Kelley and Christopher Sten Why did I love this book?

In past and present narratives of the Marquesas, along with other Pacific paradises, writers tend toward sensational or romantic exaggeration. T. Walter Herbert sets the record straight, showing what Melville likely encountered during his sojourn to Nukuhiva. In Herbert’s book, Melville is one of three examples of visitors to the islands, along with ship’s captain David Porter, whose narrative describes his laying violent waste to villages in the interior, and missionary William Alexander. Herbert shows what these visitors misunderstood about people characterized as “savages” and “barbarians”—readings that continue to influence cultural attitudes today. No one writes with quite the controlled fury and keen insight of this author!

By T. Walter Herbert Jr.,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Marquesan Encounters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

1980 Hardcover. No dust jacket. Minimal wear, otherwise nice clean readable copy.


Book cover of The Sign of the Cannibal: Melville and the Making of a Postcolonial Reader

Wyn Kelley and Christopher Sten Why did I love this book?

Sanborn’s is one of the best books for tracing a thought process experienced by Melville, or many a Western traveler in the Pacific trying to make sense of challenging cultural differences. Focusing on the taboo topic of cannibalism, Sanborn breaks down Western anxieties and fears of the unknown, showing how Melville balanced different cultural perspectives against his own experience. The result is a profoundly informative guide to how one may rethink cultural norms and how Melville’s later works reflected on his foundational early experiences and travels.

By Geoffrey Sanborn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Sign of the Cannibal as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In The Sign of the Cannibal Geoffrey Sanborn offers a major reassessment of the work of Herman Melville, a definitive history of the post-Enlightenment discourse on cannibalism, and a provocative contribution to postcolonial theory. These investigations not only explore mid-nineteenth century resistance to the colonial enterprise but argue that Melville, using the discourse on cannibalism to critique colonialism, contributed to the production of resistance.
Sanborn focuses on the representations of cannibalism in three of Melville's key texts-Typee, Moby-Dick, and "Benito Cereno." Drawing on accounts of Pacific voyages from two centuries and virtually the entire corpus of the post-Enlightenment discourse on…


Book cover of Cannibal Old Me: Spoken Sources in Melville’s Early Works

Wyn Kelley and Christopher Sten Why did I love this book?

One might read Melville’s accounts of the Pacific and reckon with only literary sources and contexts for his books. Bercaw Edwards lays bare the sounds of Pacific voices, the oral sources for his work. Drawing on a wealth of popular accounts as well as theories of discourse and linguistics, she identifies three “languages” Melville learned in his Pacific travels: sailor talk, (a rich world of yarns, folklore, and tall tales), “cannibal” talk (both islanders’ stories and the narratives they inspired), and missionary talk (accounts by religious leaders in the islands). Bercaw Edwards brings deep appreciation and unforgettable zest to Melville’s work, showing his remarkable ear and memory for rich varieties of speech and what they convey about cultural encounters. 

By Mary K. Bercaw Edwards,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Cannibal Old Me as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book offers an examination of Melville's 'borrowing'.At the age of twenty-one, Herman Melville signed on the whaleship Acushnet as a common seaman and sailed from Massachusetts to the South Pacific. Upon reaching Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands, he deserted and spent a month ashore on this reputed 'cannibal island.' He departed as crew of another whaleship but was put ashore in the heavily missionized Tahitian islands after participating in a bloodless mutiny. Eventually making his way to Hawaii, he joined the crew of the American frigate United States and finally reached Boston in October 1844 after four years…


Book cover of The Encantadas and Other Stories

Wyn Kelley and Christopher Sten Why did I love this book?

We have focused our recommendations on Melville’s (and other people’s) takes on Polynesian islands, but Melville also wrote about another crucial Pacific archipelago, the Galápagos Islands. His collection of sketches, “The Encantadas,” explores a very different world from Nukuhiva, Maui, or Tahiti, one nearly empty of human inhabitants, given over to birds, tortoises, iguanas, and insects. Yet here as elsewhere, Melville finds plenty to satisfy his “itch for things remote.” And here as elsewhere he meditates on human nature: the misfits, petty tyrants, and exiles who might find a home in such a forbidding place. If you think of Melville as an entertaining chronicler of the Pacific world, you will find much in that vein here—but also philosophy, history, and a sort of melancholy romance.

By Herman Melville,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Encantadas and Other Stories as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Best known as the creator of Captain Ahab and the great white whale of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville (1819–91) found critical and popular success with his first novels, which he based on his adventures in the South Seas. His reputation was diminished by his preoccupation with metaphysical themes and allegorical techniques in later works; and by the time of his death, his books were long forgotten. Generations later, Melville's readers recognized his work as keenly satirical and rich in elements that prefigured the emergence of existentialism and Freudian psychology.
Melville's critical fortunes temporarily rebounded in the early to mid-1850s, with the…


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Book cover of God on a Budget: and other stories in dialogue

J.M. Unrue Author Of The Festival of Sin: and other tales of fantasy

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Why am I passionate about this?

I’m an old guy. I say this with a bit of cheek and a certain amount of incongruity. All the books on my list are old. That’s one area of continuity. Another, and I’ll probably stop at two, is that they all deal with ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances—those curveballs of life we flail at with an unfamiliar bat; the getting stuck on the Interstate behind a semi and some geezer in a golf cap hogging the passing lane in a Buick Le Sabre. No one makes it through this life unscathed. How we cope does more to define us than a thousand smiles when things are rosy. Thus endeth the lesson.

J.M.'s book list on showing that somebody has it worse than you do

What is my book about?

Nine Stories Told Completely in Dialogue is a unique collection of narratives, each unfolding entirely through conversations between its characters. The book opens with "God on a Budget," a tale of a man's surreal nighttime visitation that offers a blend of the mundane and the mystical. In "Doctor in the House," readers are plunged into the emotionally charged moment when an oncologist delivers a life-altering diagnosis to a patient. The collection then shifts to "Prisoner 8086," a story about the unlikely friendship that blossoms between a prison volunteer and a habitual offender, exploring themes of redemption and human connection.

The heart of the book continues with "The Reunion," a touching narrative about high school sweethearts reuniting, stirring up poignant memories and unspoken feelings. "The Therapy Session" adds a lighter touch, presenting a serio-comic exchange between a therapist and a challenging patient. In "The Fishing Trip," a father imparts crucial life lessons to his daughter during an eventful outing, leading to unexpected consequences. "Mortality" offers a deeply personal moment as a mother shares a cherished, secret story from her past with her son.

The collection then takes a romantic turn in "The Singles Cruise," where two individuals find connection amidst shared stories on a cruise for singles. Finally, "Jesus and Buddha in the Garden of Eden" provides a satirical, thought-provoking encounter in the afterlife between two spiritual figures. The book concludes with "The Breakup," a nuanced portrayal of a young couple's separation, told from both perspectives, encapsulating the complexities of relationships and the human experience.

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By J.M. Unrue,

What is this book about?

Nine Stories Told Completely in Dialogue is a unique collection of narratives, each unfolding entirely through conversations between its characters. The book opens with "God on a Budget," a tale of a man's surreal nighttime visitation that offers a blend of the mundane and the mystical. In "Doctor in the House," readers are plunged into the emotionally charged moment when an oncologist delivers a life-altering diagnosis to a patient. The collection then shifts to "Prisoner 8086," a story about the unlikely friendship that blossoms between a prison volunteer and a habitual offender, exploring themes of redemption and human connection.

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