During the year-end quiet period, I read Ahab's Rolling Sea: A Natural History of Moby-Dick by Richard King.
Right off the bat, I'm going to say that if you have read Moby-Dick and you are interested in natural history, sperm whales, and our relationship with the sea, this is a terrific book.
It is not a science text per se; Richard is a professor of maritime literature and history. It is also not a literary critique or a history text. It is a unique blend of all of these, a work that—at the risk of oversimplifying—provides useful background information and fills in the blanks for Moby-Dick in an engaging, informative and entertaining way, with good writing to boot.
What I'm trying to say is that if you've struggled your way through Melville's masterpiece (it took me 29 years to finish reading), this book makes a lot of things clear. Some points that Richard discusses (like much of the biology information), I had figured out on my own, but things such as common wisdom and superstition among sailors of the time, the navigation routes of whaling vessels, (mistaken) beliefs about timing and location for so-called optimal whaling seasons, literary/ cultural allusions, etc.—these were all new to me.
I found myself going, "ah hah..." often as I went through the book, then looking up chapters in Moby-Dick, and/ or researching particular points discussed, the end result being a much deeper understanding of both the novel and its societal and historical context.
If you've never read Moby-Dick and are contemplating doing so, read this first. You may not be able to follow all of the references, since by definition you will not have read the relevant passages, but you will have no problem understanding Richard's discussions of interesting points of biology, history, society and so forth. It will help you tremendously when you eventually sit down to tackle Moby-Dick, and it will no doubt heighten your understanding and enjoyment.
If you've already read Moby-Dick, read this book. It illuminates so much that you'll (maybe perhaps kinda) want to read Moby-Dick again. I am toying with the idea. Maybe next holiday season.
The book was published toward the end of 2019. Richard contacted me some time ago to license the use of my photo of a large group of sperm whales, in part to illustrate the discussion of The Grand Armada (Chapter 87 in Moby-Dick).
I received a personalised copy of the book from Richard just before the year-end holiday. Perfect timing!