"Metaphors? I hate metaphors. That's why my favorite book is Moby Dick. No froo-froo symbolism. Just a good simple tale about a man who hates an animal."
I think *Frankenstein* has to come a very close second. The Universal films (and seventy years of parodies and references) have created an image of Frankenstein in the popular conscious that is largely absent from the book.
But *Moby Dick* is definitely the book that i think is most misrepresented. I went in expecting an epic battle between Ahab and the Whale that explores a mans descent into madness, but that doesn't really happen until the (excellent) last few chapters. I was surprised by how little the Whale is actually in the book.
Also nobody ever warned me about the extensive encyclopaedia moments. It was interesting to read as a concept, and quite unlike anything I've read since, but my god do i never want to reread that book. A 150 year old book about outdated whale science is not my idea of a good time. (Which is a shane as the actual story elements were quite fantastic.)
> a timid white man getting turned into a large black man's wife
That's not *quite* what happens...I think some people might read the book looking for this part, and be disappointed...
The thing that surprised me the most about Moby Dick was how hilarious it was. I expected stuffy and boring, but it there was so much humor, and the slow parts were so soothing, like being rocked to sleep. Definitely one of my favorite books...I should reread it soon.
In regards to being misrepresented - Frankenstein is probably part of that conversation. In pop culture the monster is mindless for the most part but intelligent in the book. Also the very famous imagery of "it's aliiivveee!" of the cackling, proud scientist when Victor was pretty horrified at what he'd created.
Moby Dick is one of my favorite novels. I am particularly drawn in by Ishmael's purpose both within the story and as narrator of it. The line "I only am escaped alone to tell thee" is something I have thought about for a long time.
Eta: Melville was fairly progressive for his time, and I think that is partly why the book was a flop when it was published. Another progressive novel by Melville is Benito Cereno. Also brilliant.
Don Quixote is pretty misconstrued by popular culture.
Don Quixote is, essentially, a book that is anti-fanboy, anti-cosplay, anti-fantasy.
Nowadays people tend to romanticize the book, and say Don Quixote is a romantic hero. That's not how it was written.
Queequeg isn't black, though. He's a pacific islander, like Tito from Rocketpower.
If you are interested in Moby Dick you should check out the real life inspiration for it, the story of the whaling ship Essex.
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
I personally believe the best way to enjoy Moby Dick is to imagine you're reading a sci-fi/fantasy novel. There are whole chapters dedicated to the idea that myths about dragons are actually based on whale encounters, and lines such as Ahab's "war on the horrors of the deep" really paint a Lovecraftian vibe. As a huge fan of the *Dishonored* series, I thought it fits in nicely.
In the 21st century whaling is (rightly) seen as a horrible industry that recklessly doomed many species. But to approach the novel with this modern mindset after decades of whale studies and crystal-clear National Geographic photos of every species imaginable takes away the strange mystery that these superstitious sailors must have felt hunting these giant creatures.
For example, somewhere in the book I believe Ishmael remarks on how the skeleton of a whale's flipper looks like a humans hand. Can you imagine how creepy that must have been to see? They didn't know whales were mammals, they were classified as "royal fish". That must have been terrifying to think you and God's leviathan shared common grounds. What are the implications of this? Did your God actually create Man? Are these whales the reincarnated ghosts of drowned men? The novel doesn't go into too much detail on this from what I remember, but it's fascinating to think like a superstitious religious whaler.
I think there's so many ways this book can open up your imagination if you remove the book from our modern times. Perhaps try to imagine whales only on the descriptions Melville describes, creating these rather dragonlike creatures in your head. Or maybe take the metaphors seriously and construct an alternate fantasy world where Whalers really are God's chosen waging war against Leviathan. Or make it creepy with Moby Dick as the Lovecraftian entity the novel portrays him as.
The Sun also Rises; a lot of people think it's just a cock and bull story, but it's a really solid look at war, love, sexuality, and how all of those things affect us as humans.