“Why Read Moby Dick?”: GRE Reading Comprehension Practice

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.

Good luck!

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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?

  1. It is irredeemably ponderous and merits no scholarly attention
  2. It is written with a wild and unpredictable voice
  3. It is a vast work that continues to inspire literature today
  4. It is compelling yet not enough so to warrant a resurgence in Melville
  5. 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?

  1. Enduring popularity on literary lists
  2. Too few pages
  3. An excess of metaphors
  4. Numerous asides
  5. An overly diverse range of subjects

3. According to the final paragraph, Melville did all of the following in Moby Dick EXCEPT:

  1. Wrote a chapter free of dialogue
  2. Included references to himself writing
  3. Satirized traditional scientific classification
  4. Described his work as meta-fictional
  5. 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…”

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14 Responses to “Why Read Moby Dick?”: GRE Reading Comprehension Practice

  1. Spencer Chen November 30, 2016 at 9:53 am #

    Hi Chris, I was wondering why A in the Q3 is not right? My own reasoning to justify that option is like below: we know that he would substitute dialogues for certain chapters, it is his/her innovation, so he certainly didn’t substitute for every chapter, that said, there must be chapters free of dialogues, so we eliminate it.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert November 30, 2016 at 1:57 pm #

      Hi Spencer,

      I apologize, but I’m not sure if I completely follow your question. Based on your support, it appears that you’re making a case for why “A” would be incorrect for Q3. The question asks: “Melville did all of the following in Moby Dick EXCEPT…”

      “A” states “Wrote a chapter free of dialogue”. From the passage, we see that he has done this at least once. Specifically, the passage states “Melville substituted dialogue and stage direction for a chapter’s worth of prose.” This statement states that he had a chapter’s worth of prose, meaning that in this duration there was no dialogue. So, he did indeed write a chapter free of dialogue. I hope this helps a little. 🙂

  2. Aditi February 13, 2016 at 7:27 am #

    In the first question – why can’t the answer be the 1. wild and unpredictable energy,
    we have evidence for the same in the last paragraph

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert February 15, 2016 at 12:46 pm #

      Hi Aditi,

      Although the author does state that the biography “has the wild and unpredictable energy of the great white whale itself,” this is not a good summary of the author’s reaction to the book.

      This question is similar to a “primary purpose” question, in that we’re being asked to summarize broadly the author’s reaction. Overall, the author thinks the book has good energy, but it’s not good enough to capture the attention of most readers:

      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… Philbrick doesn’t have an audience held captive in a classroom.

      If we select option (B), we miss this whole side of the author’s claim.

  3. Ahme February 10, 2012 at 4:38 am #

    Thanks so much, on this test I got 2 out of 3 right, the third question I didn’t catch. Is it possible to suggests a good sources of passages to read? I am looking to break 159 on the new scale.


    • Chris Lele
      Chris February 10, 2012 at 11:59 am #

      Hi Ahme,

      Magoosh has great reading comp passageas in our product. And each question has video and lesson explanations so you not only thoroughly understand the question, but also can avoid making similar mistakes in the future.

      Check it out: https://magoosh.com/

  4. Zaur February 2, 2012 at 7:33 pm #

    I don’t understand how moby dick o any other literature piece in its entirety can help test taker tackle RC. In stories an author leads you to where he wants, and you merely – PASSIVELY – follow his pen. While in exam reading is active and we constantly play two balls what and why? When i read moby dick i ask what only when i start reading the book …

    • Chris Lele
      Chris February 3, 2012 at 12:32 pm #

      Hi Zaur,

      I am somewhat confused by your comment. The post excerpts a passage that is a critique of a book written about Moby Dick (literary critiques are definitely found on the New GRE!). Nowhere in this post does it directly state, let alone imply, that reading Melville’s book makes for sensible GRE prep.

      So sorry if I confused you (or anyone for that matter). This post is a critical reading exercise and in no way advocates reading Moby Dick to boost your verbal score. That is not to say that the book is undeserving of its place in the literary pantheon.

  5. Bata November 1, 2011 at 6:29 am #

    If I may recommend the stunning articles of Laura Cummings, art critic.
    …the indelible frown, the cavernous cleft, the nose that is more limb than feature: Neel cannot help but notice them all. She pays no attention to the sitter’s fears of appearing graceless or gauche – her method, she said, was to converse until they unconsciously assumed their most characteristic pose in a chair, revealing “what the world had done to them and their retaliation”…

    • Chris Lele
      Chris November 5, 2011 at 6:21 pm #

      Oooh, that’s nice. Just that excerpt alone is rich with vocab and nuanced meaning.

      I was actually just combing the British periodicals myself and saw them as a trove for great high-level reading. So thanks much for this recommendation. I will def. reference it in an upcoming blog post.

  6. Aishwarya October 29, 2011 at 4:31 am #

    Hi Chris,

    I was wondering for Q1, since u have mentioned “List all..”, why is it not right to mention B & D as the answers. I mean the author does describe his work has “wild and unpredictable energy like the whales”.

    Do correect me if I am wrong!


    • Chris Lele
      Chris November 8, 2011 at 4:41 pm #

      Hi Aishwarya,

      Hmmm, you are definitely not wrong. For some reason though the question was worded incorrectly. It says “List All” which only apply to a Multiple-answer question (MAQ) on critical reading (MAQs only have three possible answer choices not five).

      The question should read “Which of the following…”

      The trick here is not to confuse Philbrick’s work, “Why Read Moby-Dick” with Melville’s original, “Moby-Dick.” Answer choice B describes the latter, whereas the question is asking about Philbrick’s work (this sort of switcheroo is not uncommon on the more difficult GRE passages).

  7. Mayur October 28, 2011 at 12:07 am #

    This was quite a tough one for me. I was not able to comprehend much. I read the editorial section of nytimes.com regularly. If you could suggest something more that I can read, that would be worthwhile for GRE preparation.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris October 31, 2011 at 1:12 pm #

      Hi Mayur,

      That’s a good question – and I’m happy somebody asked it.

      For the most part, you shouldn’t worry about passages like this – unless you are looking to score in the top 15%. See, the new GRE has a difficult section and the only way for you to even have this section if you do very well on the medium level section (everyone gets the medium).

      If you are breaking 600 on the PowerPrep practice test, then I would worry about passages like these. To find them on-line I would hunt through the usual sources – The New Yorker, NYTimes.com, and The Atlantic Monthly. But you will have to be selective – many articles in these publications are meant for quick consumption, and are thus presented in clear, easily-digestible bits of information. (Editorials, the latest news, etc).

      For the hard stuff, you’ll have to hunt through the feature articles for the New Yorker/The Atlantic Monthly. And usually when the topic is theater, art, or literature, the prose is going to be anything but straightforward, the ideas conveyed abstract. (Another great source of concentrated works is The Best of Series for Essays).

      Otherwise – meaning that you are only looking to break 500 – focus more on reading the usually stuff from the sources mentioned above. And don’t worry about chasing the “Moby Dicks”

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