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Moby Dick: A Book

By d s oliver h in Culture
Sun Mar 06, 2005 at 04:57:18 AM EST
Tags: Books (all tags)

This is my review of a well-known and much-loved book by American author Herman Melville. Not many people know that Melville was very fond of liquorice.1

In his book (first published as The Whale in October 1851), Melville goes on at great length about various things, mostly whaling. Whaling is a great and noble pursuit, he would have us believe, or rather Ishmael, the narrator, would have us believe this. Whales he classifies according to their size, and contrary to most scientific understanding he declares resolutely that they are fish of a kind, supposing jocularly that to conclude otherwise would require them to vacate the oceans entirely.

What one discovers upon reading this noble and strange book is that it is written with a great deal of wry humour, intermingled with pages of florid Shakespearean soliloquising. Only a small amount of the book describes the story of the demented Ahab and his quest for Moby Dick.2 If all the extraneous passages were removed, one fancies the tale would fit admirably into a slim volume suitable for toting in one's back pocket, which portability would be conducive, no doubt, to the reading of it in the outdoors in parks on lazy summer afternoons. As it stands the book is too large to fit in any but the pockets of an overcoat, leading to its being read at rainy bus stops and in snow-covered cottages on mountains. In his defence, however, Melville raises the question of the massiveness of his subject:

"How, then, with me, writing of this Leviathan? ... We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it."3

One is reminded ruefully of the many attempts at writing the great flea novel, which reckless endeavour has led directly to the downfall of countless promising authors, notably Shaw, Flaubert, von Goethe, and latterly Stephen King, whose 1,900-page epic The Life of a Flea had its entire print run pulped after selling only one copy (to a dog).

There is much enjoyment to be derived from the poetic parts of the book, and anyone who reviews it has an abundance of illuminating discourse to select from in giving excerpts. Melville's extended musings on the philosophy associated with the sea are engaging in an agreeable and mildly intoxicating manner. On the task of standing atop the masts of a whale-ship scouting for whales, for example, he gives us this enjoyable exposition:

"'Why, thou monkey,' said a harpooneer to one of these lads, 'we've been cruising now hard upon three years and thou hast not raised a whale yet. Whales are scarce as hen's teeth whenever thou art up here.' Perhaps they were; or perhaps there might have been shoals of them in the far horizon; but lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it."4

One can quite easily identify with the lad with "lean brow and hollow eye; given to unseasonable meditativeness" thus described, since were one a sailor on a 19th-century whaling ship one would no doubt similarly wish to avoid work as far as possible, as one does in ordinary life. "Nowadays," Melville informs us, "the whale-fishery furnishes an asylum for many romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded young men, disgusted with the carking care of earth, and seeking sentiment in tar and blubber."

Melville finds many places to eulogise life on the ocean, and is clearly very impressed with whales, particularly sperm whales, which he tries to convince us are in fact geniuses. The reason sperm whales never speak, he assures us, is that they have more important things on their minds than conferring with mere humans:

"But how? Genius in the Sperm Whale? Has the Sperm Whale ever written a book, spoken a speech? No, his great genius is declared in his doing nothing particular to prove it. It is moreover declared in his pyramidical silence.5... But then again, what has the whale to say? Seldom have I known any profound being that had anything to say to this world..." 6

Similarly one trusts one's own genius will at length be recognised and rewarded through continuing to do nothing in particular.

Whales are compared favourably in Moby Dick to everything Melville can think of, indeed one almost expects next to read that he would like to marry one. So revered is the sperm whale in this book that one is confounded and saddened by the nonchalance with which the butchery of them is described, and the extensive detail given on methods of dissection and uses of the various parts. If you love whales so much, Herman, why do you want to chop them into pieces?

Despite this gruesomeness Moby Dick contains many vividly descriptive and exciting passages to do with the hunting of whales, which were chased by intrepid crews and harpoon-throwers manning small boats which were lowered from whaling ships. In one memorable chapter the narrator's ship encounters a vast shoal of migrating whales and boats are dispatched to kill as many as possible.

"As, blind and deaf, the whale plunged forward, as if by sheer power of speed to rid himself of the iron leech that had fastened to him; as we thus tore a white gash in the sea, on all sides menaced as we flew, by the crazed creatures to and fro rushing about us; our beset boat was like a ship mobbed by ice-isles in a tempest, and striving to steer through their complicated channels and straits, knowing not at what moment it may be locked in and crushed."8
There follows an account of a bizarre phenomenon whereby the shoal swims in a circular formation, in the midst of which the ocean is becalmed and Ishmael's boat is entrapped. Melville takes this (and every other) opportunity to use his subject matter as an analogy by which to elucidate his philosophical soul:
"And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely revelled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy."9

The level of poetic beauty found in the book is doubly impressive when one considers that Melville was also an accomplished sailor, having embarked on several whaling expeditions and involved himself in numerous thoroughly exciting seafaring adventures10. Also the book is so long one has to admire his patience and commitment in writing the whole of it.

Famous quotations.

There are only really two famous quotations from this book. Were its author alive today he would no doubt be somewhat disappointed by this, but on the other hand he would probably be ecstatic at having reached the age of 185 and having seen the advent of such modern marvels as the miniskirt, hula-hoops, pocket calculators, mind-reading helmets, and robotic monkeys, none of which were available when the book was written. Poor Herman would probably also be utterly sickened by the depletion of the whale population caused by hunting and would be a staunch supporter of environmental campaign groups such as Greenpeace, and would donate all the gold and jewels he accrued during his bloodthirsty piratical voyages to PETA. The most famous line appears in the following passage, and evinces Ahab's maniacal hatred of his prey, the whale who so thoughtlessly stole his leg:
"Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!"7

Has anyone ever hated anyone else as much as Ahab hated Moby Dick? Arguably some people hate reviled dance musician Moby almost as much, though to date none of his detractors has pursued him across an ocean. The other famous line in the book is its opening line: "Call me Ishmael". One can readily see why this line has become famous.


It is clear from reading this book that, above all, Melville was exceedingly proud of the long and successful whaling tradition and people of his great country, and particularly fond of the island town of Nantucket, Massachusetts, the port from which the Pequod (Ahab's ship) and many other of the ships in the story set sail. As well as being rightly celebrated for its historic maritime tradition, the noble town of Nantucket is well-known for its appearance in numerous amusing limericks. The town's name is, and no doubt long has been, much-beloved of sailors and many others the world over for its quality of rhyming with "fuck it", for which few would deny the town, and the country in which it is situated, great credit.

In closing I would like to remark that there are, in addition to the more philosophical portions, many diverting and entertaining jokes in the book, and you might get a few laughs if you read it. Nevertheless this is a book I cannot wholly recommend due to the unremitting cruelty to animals it depicts.


1. This is possibly not true as I made it up.

2. SPOILER: Ahab dies.

3. Ch 104, third paragraph.

4. Ch 35, penultimate paragraph.

5. Ch 79, fifth paragraph.

6. Ch 85, sixth paragraph.

7. Ch 135, fifth paragraph from the end.

8. Ch 87, seventeenth paragraph.

9. Ch 87, twenty-seventh paragraph.

10. In 1841, reliable sources inform us, Melville set sail on the whaling ship Acushnet, registered in Fairhaven, MA. He deserted the ship while it was moored in the Marquesas Islands (a French colonial possession allegedly populated by cannibals). He later stowed away on a ship bound for Tahiti. A few years later he joined the US Navy and soon after returned to Boston. These incidents formed the basis for his book Typee. Moby Dick was, apparently, based on the sinking of the ship Essex by a whale. Melville supposedly got a first-hand written account after meeting the son of one of the survivors, Owen Chase, during an exchange with another ship on the high seas.


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o Also by d s oliver h

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Moby Dick: A Book | 70 comments (33 topical, 37 editorial, 0 hidden)
Melville plagarized. (3.00 / 14) (#1)
by Mr.Surly on Fri Mar 04, 2005 at 11:30:46 AM EST

... to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee ...

This was stolen from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn.  Maybe you should mention the plagarism and update your citations?

Not the only time. (2.50 / 6) (#6)
by kitten on Fri Mar 04, 2005 at 12:54:12 PM EST

Didn't Khan say he would chase Kirk "round the moons of Nibia and round the Antares maelstrom and round perdition's flames before I give him up"?

And by sheer chance we find almost that exact passage in Melville's work as well -- he only edited it to make it more terrestrial, removing the intersteller aspect. The man was shameless.
mirrorshades radio - darkwave, synthpop, industrial, futurepop.
[ Parent ]
Way to ruin a perfectly good one (1.11 / 9) (#7)
by thelizman on Fri Mar 04, 2005 at 01:46:53 PM EST

That would have been a clever little trolling if you hadn't come along and played doof to his fiddle. Nice work, ass.

"Our language is sufficiently clumsy enough to allow us to believe foolish things." - George Orwell
[ Parent ]
Khan, I'm Laughing at the Superior Intellect (3.00 / 4) (#10)
by ewhac on Fri Mar 04, 2005 at 02:21:16 PM EST

Khan quotes Melville a couple of times. And yet none of the other genetically optimized so-called supermen hanging around bothered to say, "Um, sir? You do know how that book ended, don't you?"

Editor, A1-AAA AmeriCaptions. Priest, Internet Oracle.
[ Parent ]

Damnit (none / 1) (#20)
by LilDebbie on Fri Mar 04, 2005 at 04:56:08 PM EST

Now I'm going to have to watch that when I get home.

My name is LilDebbie and I have a garden.
- hugin -

[ Parent ]
Khaaaaaaaaaan! Khaaaaaaaaan! (3.00 / 2) (#52)
by CheeseburgerBrown on Sat Mar 05, 2005 at 02:41:39 PM EST

You Klingon bastard -- you've killed my son.


I am from a small, unknown country in the north called Ca-na-da. We are a simple, grease-loving people who enjoy le weeke
Parent ]
Here ya go (none / 0) (#65)
by Mr.Surly on Mon Mar 07, 2005 at 12:04:16 PM EST


[ Parent ]
uh huh (none / 0) (#62)
by dgswensen on Mon Mar 07, 2005 at 03:11:35 AM EST

Yes, you cracked the case. Trek II is Moby Dick, with Ricardo Montalban as Khan and William Shatner as the great white whale. Insert rich Corinthian leather joke here.

[ Parent ]
Gee (none / 0) (#69)
by ENOENT on Mon Mar 14, 2005 at 02:15:45 PM EST

How did Khan know that Shatner was going to get fat?

So nyah.

[ Parent ]
Moby Dick: A rave party in my pants. (1.20 / 10) (#2)
by fragmal on Fri Mar 04, 2005 at 12:03:04 PM EST

The content in this comment is protected under the Creative Commons License. Details about the Creative Commons License can be found here.
I found it strange... (3.00 / 4) (#3)
by Booji Boy on Fri Mar 04, 2005 at 12:29:59 PM EST

that of all the thousands of whaling ships in Melville's time, that no one had actually seen a blue whale. He goes on and on about how the sperm whale is the largest and longest. There are a few references to 'unsubstantiated accounts' of fin-whales ?sp that may be as big, but it seems pretty clear to him that the sperm whale is king.
Kinda sad to think about how many sperm whales there used to be that one wouldn't even notice a blue whale.

They were known to science (3.00 / 2) (#31)
by jolly st nick on Fri Mar 04, 2005 at 06:59:56 PM EST

as well as whalers, who reduced the worldwide population of blue whales from 200,000 to only 10,000.

Blue whales have always been rare. By way of contrast, even the pessimistic estimates of sperm whale populations alive today are considerably higher than the peak population for he blue whale. The peak population of the sperm whales was probably in the millions of individuals.

It would therefore have been extremely rare for a 19th C whaling vessel to encounter a blue whale, an order of magnitude rarer at least than a sperm whale, which they didn't exactly run into every day.

[ Parent ]

But that's what got me... (3.00 / 2) (#34)
by Booji Boy on Fri Mar 04, 2005 at 08:24:27 PM EST

Melville seemed pretty certain in his lengthy cetology chapter that the sperm whale was the largest.

Man, whales are a depressing subject.
This past week at work I was making a list of a certain category of satellites and found a whale monitoring satellite called WEOS. I thought "how cute"... then I realised it was a Japanese satellite. Hmmm.

[ Parent ]
Maybe sperm whales do grow bigger (3.00 / 2) (#64)
by Anonymous Howards End on Mon Mar 07, 2005 at 09:52:28 AM EST

How about we stop killing them for a clear forty or fifty years and find out?

[ Parent ]
Heh heh... "Dick"... (1.28 / 7) (#26)
by givemegmail111 on Fri Mar 04, 2005 at 06:00:36 PM EST

McDonalds: i'm lovin' it
Start your day tastefully with a Sausage, Egg & Cheese McGriddle, only at McDonalds.
Rusty fix my sig, dammit!
+1 Not ghettoed to "Humour" (1.37 / 8) (#30)
by killmepleez on Fri Mar 04, 2005 at 06:57:59 PM EST

is just really, really fucking lame.

I didn't <laugh> <spew milk> or <pee>, but it was amusing nonetheless. Thanks for contributing.

"I instantly realized that everything in my life that I thought was unfixable was totally fixable - except for having just jumped."
--from "J
I loved this book. (2.80 / 5) (#32)
by jolly st nick on Fri Mar 04, 2005 at 07:17:29 PM EST

I even found the infamous chapter where he describes the whaling tackle to be fascinating.

But I never had to read it for school. I can see how plodding through a massive, complicated work like this with the sole purpose of being able to write your report and move on would kill the enjoyment.

Even so, many 19th century authors are not everyone's cup of tea. They wrote for people of leisure and education, and were prone to doing things like throwing bits of untranslated Latin, or if they were really pretentious Greek or even Hebrew into their works. Mellville's style was rather middle of the road given his grand ambitions for the work.

Its odd how the style of some authors is timeless, and others are dated. Jane Austen's Emma was published in 1815, but it seems completely modern. Moby Dick was published nearly 140 years after, and seems impossibly antique, almost like reading something Elizabethan.

I liked it too. (3.00 / 2) (#40)
by d s oliver h on Sat Mar 05, 2005 at 05:46:40 AM EST

I read it for pleasure, not for school. I think my review highlights some very attractive qualities of the work. My intention was to entice people who have not read it to consider doing so. People who do not read much fiction, for example.

By the way there is not a space of 140 years between 1815 and 1851, when Moby Dick was published.

[ Parent ]
Yeah, duh (none / 1) (#43)
by jolly st nick on Sat Mar 05, 2005 at 11:24:46 AM EST

By the way there is not a space of 140 years between 1815 and 1851, when Moby Dick was published.

Yeah duh. That's what I get for getting out of my sick bed to read and post on K5. I was thinking 1715 for some reason.

The point still stands though. This is a great but hard to approach book that generateions has been spoiled for generations of students by people who have loved it.

[ Parent ]

I know I'll get rated 0 for this but (none / 1) (#60)
by rpresser on Sun Mar 06, 2005 at 08:03:23 PM EST

at first I misread this sentence

Jane Austen's Emma was published in 1815, but it seems completely modern.


Jane Austen's Enema was published in 1815, but it seems completely modern.

and found myself nodding in agreement, as this is a perfect description of the experience of reading any Jane Austen work.
"In terms of both hyperbolic overreaching and eventual wrongness, the Permanent [Republican] Majority has set a new, and truly difficult to beat, standard." --rusty
[ Parent ]

You really need to follow up on liquorice. . . (2.66 / 3) (#48)
by IHCOYC on Sat Mar 05, 2005 at 12:27:34 PM EST

This could be the start of something that could make your report truly interesting in research. Given Melville's penchant for liquorice, how many times is liquorice mentioned in the text of the book itself? How does liquorice compare to, say, whale blubber? (You might want to go to a fancy Japanese restaurant and compare them yourselves.) Did Melville's liquorice tastes run to the sweeter, American variety of liquorice? or did he prefer the salty and stronger Northern European sorts of liquorice? Which sorts of liquorice were widely available in Melville's day? Had the adulteration of liquorice with anise gone very far by that time?

In English departments across the country, whole theses are written on this sort of thing. Make one yourself, and you'll have something to show to your college admissions instructor.
Ecce torpet probitas, virtus sepelitur;
Fit iam parca largitas, parcitas largitur;
Verum dicit falsitas; veritas mentitur.

Thanks. (3.00 / 7) (#50)
by d s oliver h on Sat Mar 05, 2005 at 01:16:33 PM EST

I appreciate your comment. I mean, licorice is very important to my family, we've always been licorice producers and we live in a licorice-producing area and we're really proud that so many famous people like licorice, like George Bush and all his staff and his wife's dogs and everything. I think Melville was fond of the sweet licorice, he had a very sweet tooth. I heard some letters were discovered recently by someone from the University of Wisconsin which were sent to Melville by his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, discussing in detail the means of production of licorice and plans the two were making to construct a licorice factory in New York. It seems the letters were lost though when the mail donkey carrying them was struck by lightning. They fell into a hole and were preserved there by being frozen in ice, this was up North somewhere in the mountains. They were discovered recently by a potholer I think. Also letters Melville's wife wrote to her sister in North Dakota explain how he would sit in the kitchen with a huge sack of sugar spooning it into his mouth all day long, and would drink sugar syrup by the gallon. What a brave and sensible guy.

Gee I hope I will make it into a good college, do you think I will have a chance? I mean, I love being at High School here in Idaho and this town is really great and all and I totally love it here and love the parties and hanging with my school buddies and there's really loads of cute chicks at my school and all and I just paid the last instalment on my truck and I love going hunting in the mountains and my dad is a great guy and all, always going on about how he loves the Republicans, but sometimes I kind of feel like I'd like to move to some city like New York or someplace cool like that and go to college and hang with the hip kids into artsy kind of stuff or whatever. I guess if you think I have a chance I'll apply to NYU or somewhere, I mean, I've kind of outgrown this town now, I've been here all my life, I feel like I'm ready to go to college, I am one of the smartest kids in my class, my English teacher says I'm real clever, he gives me extra tuition sometimes.

[ Parent ]
Whaling lore (2.75 / 4) (#49)
by rusty on Sat Mar 05, 2005 at 12:47:41 PM EST

Related to the last footnaote, Nathaniel Philbrick's book about the sinking of the Essex, In the Heart of the Sea, is cracking good.

Not the real rusty
pls rvew WAR&PEACE (1.80 / 5) (#57)
by klem on Sun Mar 06, 2005 at 01:45:39 PM EST


Okay, this got voted up. (1.50 / 2) (#58)
by dteeuwen on Sun Mar 06, 2005 at 01:46:33 PM EST

I now feel better about everything I have ever written since 9th grade.


Down the slopes of death he rides
The eight hooves pound like drums
Darkness reigns the crumbling sky
Invasion has begun

yeah, ass (1.00 / 3) (#59)
by klem on Sun Mar 06, 2005 at 01:46:40 PM EST

I heard the he lived one year among cannivals... (none / 1) (#61)
by chanio on Mon Mar 07, 2005 at 01:27:34 AM EST

Is it true that before writting any book he was lost for a year and lived ammong the cannivals, without any hope of being rescued? This would be very mind bending, I guess.

Besides, the whale industry was at those times, one of the biggest and most profitable american industries. I remmember that he mentioned the number of people depending on that industry. That would justify his acceptance of working as a whale killer.
Farenheit Binman:
This worlds culture is throwing away-burning thousands of useful concepts because they don't fit in their commercial frame.
My chance of becoming intelligent!

Typee (none / 0) (#70)
by transient0 on Sun Mar 20, 2005 at 01:16:50 AM EST

The slightly fictionalized account of Melville's experience as a prisoner/guest of island tribesman is told in the book "Typee."

i highly recommend it.
lysergically yours
[ Parent ]

This summer I read... (none / 1) (#63)
by dgswensen on Mon Mar 07, 2005 at 03:13:05 AM EST

"And so in conclusion, Moby Dick is a book of many contrasts."


Never mind the quality (none / 0) (#67)
by d s oliver h on Mon Mar 07, 2005 at 06:30:12 PM EST

feel the width!

[ Parent ]
Ishmael, and the gentle art of the bad meme (2.60 / 5) (#66)
by Farkus on Mon Mar 07, 2005 at 03:13:33 PM EST

I think the point that Melville was making was that Ishmael has no credibility. Melville repeatedly portrays Ishmael as an overintellectual fool, covering his ignorance and lack of common sense with a charming dose of philosophy.

You acknowledge that Ishmael reports "I take the good old fashioned ground that the whale is a fish, and call upon holy Jonah to back me." Based solely on this "rigorous" proof, he then goes on to declare "this fundamental thing settled." He has just recited the whole litany of reasons why he is completely wrong, but Ishmael figures he can handily unseat the whole of the Biological Establishment by consulting his messmates, Simeon Macey and Charley Coffin of Nantucket (which on whaleships makes them Right), to which the latter "profanely hinted they were humbug."

Ishmael's charismatic method of convincing the reader should prove that Melville intended the narrator's opinions to be taken ironically, like the 19th Century equivalent of Beavis and Butthead, except the torturing is of large animals, not small furry ones, and is just as admirably portrayed. Entire chapters of Moby Dick are dedicated to little more than, "Huh! You said 'sperm...' That was cool.". Chapter 96 (Squeeze of the Hand) is one example, which should be read R E A L   S L O W for maximum impact, and not in front of the kids if you want them to grow up hetero. Also Chapter 32 (Cetology), to a lesser degree, in which he somewhat delicately describes how the whale got it's name. It's in Ishmael's delicacy that Melville indicates that it's actually kind of bawdy to name an entire species of whale after cum.

A wonderful example of Ishmael's evidentiary style, and one of my favorite passages in the book comes from Chapter 12: "Queequeg was a native of Kokovoko, an island far away to the West and South. It is not down in any map; true places never are."

In conclusion, I take the unsalubrious position that the average tuna has more mercury than a rectal thermometer, and I call upon the infallible Sealab 2021 to back me.

Well (none / 0) (#68)
by d s oliver h on Fri Mar 11, 2005 at 04:40:04 AM EST

I know Ishmael makes some preposterous claims about the preeminence of whales and whaling, but if his opinions were taken ironically that would mean Melville was attacking whaling, which I don't think he is. Ishmael's character as a narrator is often used to humorous effect but I am not sure that the point is for anything beyond this, bawdy or not. Also I am not sure how Beavis and Butthead can be said to be ironic, please clarify.

[ Parent ]
History of New York (none / 0) (#71)
by Twemlow on Sun Apr 10, 2005 at 06:58:50 PM EST

A book in the same vein of comic literature as Moby-Dick, and the one that really set the standard for humor writing via extreme erudition, is Washington Irving's "Knickerbocker's History of New York." This book should be kept away from teething children as the laughing it induces is a choking hazard. Irving begins by tracing the history of New York from the creation of the universe, visiting the theories and myths of all cultures, to the settlement of New York by Dutch colonists. Dutch colonists like Melville's own ancestors. (Melville's mother's family name is the very dutch "Gansevoort"). Then Irving really goes to work on the Dutch. And boy does he make them look ridiculous. Very funny.

Moby Dick: A Book | 70 comments (33 topical, 37 editorial, 0 hidden)
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