Cetus, The Whale; published by The Melville Press


I recently found The Melville Press through a review of one of their books that appeared in the excellent Books and Vines fine press blog. The review was for the more recent Dylan Thomas story In the Direction of the Beginning. After reading the review, my typical next move was to click on the link to the press, thereby discovering yet another press unknown to me yet practically in my backyard. The Melville Press operates out of Pacific Palisades and has published four books under their imprint since 1995. Their website states that  “The Melville Press was born from a passion for Melville’s work, and is devoted to publishing books which capture the spirit of his vision.” I’ve been in a bit of a Moby Dick mode having just read Matt Kish’s Moby Dick in Pictures: One Picture for Every Page, so when I found the press I couldn’t resist the purchase.

Cetus, The Whale, is described as “an illustrated companion to Moby Dick”. It is obvious that this book is a labor of love in homage to Melville, to whom it is dedicated. It’s a love that is shared by both the designer and artist Catherine Kanner, and the editor John Sheller. You get a glimpse of their reverence in the opening paragraphs of Sheller’s excellent preface:

“There are mountains of the written word. Scripture is inspired of God. Neither the creation of scripture nor the voice of the Holy Spirit were silenced at the end of the New Testament.

Dumps full of books have piled up since, some even claiming credentials of divine inspiration. Only a few in their vision and craft reveal truth so clearly that many can agree the result is inspired. Moby Dick is such a book.”

He goes on to point out that the portraits are a tribute to Melville’s central characters whose immortality is assured by both the book itself and by the imaginings and re-imaginings of the characters in illustration. I’ve seen many debates in other forums about who among the illustrators of the various editions has really captured Ahab’s spirit and madness. Now, for the first time I’m aware of, we have the rest of the characters to imagine along with the terrifying and doomed captain. But then all of them are doomed except for Ishmael, who alone is not represented by a portrait

The design of the book is amazing. The accordion binding allows all the characters to be viewed simultaneously. The text block is appropriately attached to the binding using a harpoon-shaped anchor piece and the Arches 88 paper makes the Bembo typeface just pop out of the page. Stamped on the cover and at the beginning and end of the illustrations is the constellation Cetus, the Whale. And complementing the deep blue silk on the binding are the hand-painted endpapers.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 kicks off the section of illustrations. The portraits each have an excerpt from Moby Dick with the exception of Fedallah and Ahab, who get quotes from Milton’s Paradise Lost. Has Kanner finally managed to capture the ultimate imagining of Ahab? I’ll let each person judge for themself. But for me she has done it, with one side of his face blurring into the darkness that engulfs him and the crew as he seeks a very un-Quaker-like revenge. I was also told that she went through several versions of Fedallah before they were satisfied that they had captured Ahab’s “dark shadow”. That’s one more piece of anecdotal evidence of their desire to produce a beautiful and meaningful companion to Melville’s masterwork.

AWARDS: Rounce and Coffin Award for excellence in book design (1997)

AVAILABILITY: This book is still available directly from The Melville Press but is listed as limited availability as I believe the remaining sheets get bound as the last few orders come in. It is well worth pursuing before they are gone.




More images:

Hand painted endpapers unique to each book


The harpoon anchor piece





Ishmael page spread

Queequeg page spread










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