Melville’s experiments with form begin with the two short sections that appear before the start of the actual narrative. The first, “Etymology,” gives the words for “whale” in various languages, from Greek to “Erromangoan,” and credits this information to “a late consumptive usher to a grammar school”: one of Melville’s first darkly comic lost souls. The second section, “Extracts,” is a collection of short quotations from books ranging from the Bible to Hawthorne to Milton to sea-shanties, all referring to whales. These are said to be “supplied by a sub-sub-librarian,” eulogized by the author as “a mere painstaking burrower and grub-worm of a poor devil of a Sub-Sub.” Melville here prepares us for the stylistic weirdness of the rest of the novel, and begins to present the notion that the whale is obsessively defined by many, but understood by few.
Here’s the passage, read aloud by Stewart Wills in multi-language glory: