Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
I listened to the free complete unabridged recording at librivox.org, masterfully narrated.
LibriVox Moby Dick by Herman Melville
It takes a lot for a book to make my top ten list, but this one just has. In fact, it's now one of the 6 books in my top 5 (because I can't bear to bump any).
There is nothing in the world like this book. It's the story of one of the most stunning characters in all of literature, Captain Ahab, who is a gloomy, brooding, obsessed, complex man who is completely consumed with finding the white sperm whale Moby Dick who in a previous encounter had bitten off his leg.
But the story is told by Ishmael, a sailor on the boat who himself is a strange character, unfettered, arrogant, encyclopedic, philosophical, and free from any moralizing. And the other inhabitants of the boat, like Queequeg, Starbuck, Pip, and Stubbs, and other characters elsewhere like Captain Bildad and Captain Peleg, are among the most unforgettable characters you'll see anywhere.
The book (the unabridged version, which I read) is filled with digressions about the taxonomy, anatomy, behavior of whales, the operation of whaling ships, the famous whalers through history, meditations on Jonah, etc. These can be long and tedious, but they're interesting enough. And they serve a higher purpose -- they make it possible for the ship to travel great distances over great time, without those intervals being part of the narrative.
The book is deeply meditative, dark, and philosophical. Of most note to me is the sheer godlessness of Ahab, possessed in his thirst to find Moby Dick.
The language is amazing -- some passages are just lurid, delicious, hypnotizing, as perfect as anything written by Milton or Shakespeare. In some sections the language is meant to evoke stage directions, quite effectively. In others they're soliloquies worthy of Hamlet or Lear.
See this meditation by Ishmael.
Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! Never dream with thy hand on the helm! Turn not thy back to the compass; accept the first hint of the hitching tiller; believe not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly. To-morrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be bright; those who glared like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler, relief; the glorious, golden, glad sun, the only true lamp- all others but liars!
Nevertheless the sun hides not Virginia's Dismal Swamp, nor Rome's accursed Campagna, nor wide Sahara, nor all the millions of miles of deserts and of griefs beneath the moon. The sun hides not the ocean, which is the dark side of this earth, and which is two thirds of this earth. So, therefore, that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true- not true, or undeveloped. With books the same. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon's, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. "All is vanity." ALL. This wilful world hath not got hold of unchristian Solomon's wisdom yet. But he who dodges hospitals and jails, and walks fast crossing graveyards, and would rather talk of operas than hell; calls Cowper, Young, Pascal, Rousseau, poor devils all of sick men; and throughout a care-free lifetime swears by Rabelais as passing wise, and therefore jolly;- not that man is fitted to sit down on tomb-stones, and break the green damp mould with unfathomably wondrous Solomon.
But even Solomon, he says, "the man that wandereth out of the way of understanding shall remain" (i.e. even while living) "in the congregation of the dead." Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.
(bold is mine -- just amazing writing)