Philip Hoare’s literary and cultural history of the world’s largest and oldest animal may lead you to brush up on your sea chanteys and protest ballads simultaneously. The Whale, already winner of the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction in England, should be welcomed by American readers on both coasts and all points in between. Hoare follows his passion for whales around the world and back through time, beginning with and continually touching on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick for source material and inspiration. The book is liberally peppered with quotes that are guaranteed to bring new readers to the classic novel and send long-time fans back for another voyage on The Pequod.

The Whale explores the history of the whaling industry and the systemic abuse and harm humans have done to what is arguably the gentlest mammal known to man; the details are often heartbreaking, even when they’re offset by thrilling descriptions of the dangers of life at sea. Hoare visits historic whaling towns in multiple countries and actually swims with whales, and his personal accounts and sheer delight in his experiences lighten the mood. Readers will appreciate the ironic plot twist when what ultimately saves the whales from extinction turns out to be the discovery of crude oil.

There’s a generous smattering of scientific and biological information spread throughout the book; but the most amazing fact of all is how little humans actually know about whales. Hoare writes, “We would do well to remember that the world harbours animals bigger than ourselves, which we have yet to see; that not everything is catalogued and claimed and digitalized. That in the oceans great whales swim unnamed by man.” Yet another reason to be humble in their amazing presence.

Heather Seggel reads and writes in Ukiah, California.

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