There’s something compelling about the coming together of a white whale, sleep deprivation, unappealing food, harpoons, and lots of hoarse voices. At least Ahab thought so. When you put all of that in New Bedford’s Whaling Museum in Massachusetts, along with a roster of two hundred volunteer readers, you’ve got the Tenth Annual Moby Dick Marathon—compelling enough to make me drive an hour each way last Sunday just to catch a few chapters read aloud from that doorstopper of a book.
It’s not that I’m a particular fan of Moby Dick. I neither liked nor understood the book when it was assigned in high school. But the chance to witness such an extreme combination of literature, performance, and endurance was too intriguing to pass up. I imagined it as a literary do-over of They Shoot Horses Don’t They, with readers staggering up to the podium, slurring their words after hours on their feet. I figured the museum’s reading room would look like the sidewalk after a camp-out for Coldplay tickets, littered with food wrappers and sleeping bags and coffee cups.
No such luck. The Whaling Museum is a modern building tucked among the colonial houses of the old city, and the atrium lobby where the reading marathon took place was sleek and full of light from the enormous windows along the back. No one was having trouble staying awake. Three whale skeletons hung from the ceiling above a space divided into two sections: readers to the right, spectators to the left. I found a place on the stairs down to the lobby, on the readers side, but nobody sent me away.
Everyone had a copy of Moby Dick, some loaned by the museum, but most looking like much-loved and much-read volumes pulled from home shelves. Barnes and Noble was there, offering nooks on loan. Here was a fusion of the very old and the very latest: a nineteenth-century classic, available in digital form, read aloud by people from Melville’s very own part of the world. Interestingly, virtually everyone was following the spoken reading along in their books. I didn’t have a copy, so I simply listened, which seemed to me to be the point.
I heard a woman read not as distinctly as I would have liked, a man read with lovely theatrical aplomb, a woman read in Portuguese—in which the few words I understood included “Ahab,” “Pequod,” and “melancolia”—and then just before I had to leave, the actual great-great-grandson of Melville himself. A tall man with glasses and a short gray pony tail, he had the privilege of reciting the moment when Moby Dick bites the whaling boat in two. I’m guessing he gets to pick his favorite part.
Who goes to an event like this? Mostly people with gray hair, mostly people wearing LL Bean-type clothes. But also a young man in skinny jeans and a deerstalker; a kid in a Marblehead Badminton t-shirt; and a handful of grad-student types who must have been there in homage to Melville, the post-structuralist. What I expected to see more of I saw only one of: a man in work pants and Jason Bourne’s red down jacket, with a watch cap and mutton-chops. A sailor.
Maybe Melville isn’t your favorite book. Maybe twenty-five hours of recitation isn’t your idea of fun. But there’s something to be said for sitting in a room beneath the bones of a whale, listening to people say things like “There she blows!”