Below is an excerpt from the New York Times Book Review about a recently published work, “Why Read Moby Dick?”. The level of writing, specifically the author’s prose style, as well as his ambivalence to the work, are similar to what you’ll see on the GRE. Of course, the passage would probably be modified some were it to be actually included on the GRE. But, the general flavor will help neural circuits warm-up for the more difficult GRE Reading Comprehension passages.
Also, I’ve bold-faced important vocabulary words. When you read passages such as this one online, make sure to have wordnik.com open. That way, you can quickly look up words. However, simply looking up words, and then forgetting them, is no help. Look up the words before, and then read through the passage. Afterwards, go back over the passage, and see if you can define the words with the help of context. Then, later, see if you can remember the words without any context (you may want to write them down, or commit them to some electronic form).
When you’ve finished reading, I’ve also included three critical reading style questions. While these are nowhere near as difficult and rigorous as an actual GRE question, they will test how much of the passage you understood.
Philbrick, whose “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” recounted the real-life inspiration for Melville’s shipwreck, wears his erudition lightly. He broaches the novel in quirky thematic fashion, with gracefully written compact essays on topics like landlessness, chowder and sharks. His voice is that of a beloved professor lecturing with such infectious enthusiasm that one can almost, for a moment, believe in the possibility of a popular renaissance for Melville. But convincing and beguiling though his slender apologia is (the whole of it taking up less than a quarter of the space allotted to the Norton Critical Edition’s appendixes), Philbrick doesn’t have an audience held captive in a classroom.
Still, his Bible metaphor applies in that not only is “Moby-Dick” a massive tome about the wages of sin and the elusiveness of redemption, but, also, one to which zealots return even as potential admirers push it away, put off by its size and its longtime residence on literature courses’ reading lists.
It’s too bad. More capacious than ponderous, “Moby-Dick” has the wild and unpredictable energy of the great white whale itself, more than enough to heave its significance out of what Melville called “the universal cannibalism of the sea” and into the light. Melville challenged the form of the novel decades before James Joyce, and a century before Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace. Calling for tools befitting the ambition of his task — “Give me a condor’s quill! Give me Vesuvius’s crater for an ink stand!” — Melville substituted dialogue and stage direction for a chapter’s worth of prose. He halted the action to include a parody of the scientific classification of whales, a treatise on the whale as represented in art, a meditation on the complexity of rope, whatever snagged his attention. Reporting the exact day and time of his writing in a parenthetical aside, he “pulled back the fictive curtain and inserted a seemingly irrelevant glimpse of himself in the act of composition,” the moment Philbrick identifies as his favorite in the novel. Melville may not have called this playfulness metafiction, but he defied strictures that shaped the work of his contemporaries, including that of Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom he dedicated “Moby-Dick,” calling it a “token of my admiration for his genius.”
1. Which of the following that accurately summarize the reaction of the author of the passage to Philbrick’s work?
- It is irredeemably ponderous and merits no scholarly attention
- It is written with a wild and unpredictable voice
- It is a vast work that continues to inspire literature today
- It is compelling yet not enough so to warrant a resurgence in Melville
- It is inconsistent and ultimately off-putting
2. From the passage, it can be inferred that which of the following aspects of a novel can repel potential readers?
- Enduring popularity on literary lists
- Too few pages
- An excess of metaphors
- Numerous asides
- An overly diverse range of subjects
3. According to the final paragraph, Melville did all of the following in Moby Dick EXCEPT:
- Wrote a chapter free of dialogue
- Included references to himself writing
- Satirized traditional scientific classification
- Described his work as meta-fictional
- Contemplated mundane objects
Below, I’ve provided the answer choices along with quotations indicating the relevant part of the passage.
1. D: “But convincing and beguiling…”
2. A: “Put-off by its size and long-term residence…”
3. D: “Melville may not have called…”