Moby-Dick marathon, part 3

New Bedford Whaling Museum

8:30 a.m. I stop in for 20 minutes before heading up to the office. Carol is already sitting with our copy of Moby-Dick, nursing a cup of coffee. Quite a few more people at this hour: 1 reader, 15 spectators, 18 readers waiting, 5 volunteers, a number of people in the back; but my count is inaccurate, people are coming and going all the time; perhaps like me they are stopping in on their way to work.

I should mention that the volunteers all wear navy-blue caps with gold braid or “scrambled eggs” on the brim, and the words “Moby-Dick: The Marathon” emblazoned across the front in gold letters. This morning, the Timer is particularly intent on his duties, seated at the table in front of the two reader’s podiums, lightly tapping his text of Moby-Dick with a pencil as he follows along, checking the clock, checking whatever is written in the notebook open in front of him.


Today’s New Bedford Standard-Times, begins the story on the marathon thus:

NEW BEDFORD — The man with the black boots made his way loudly to the front of the chapel.

Those seated couldn’t help but turn in the pews to watch the man, wearing a long trench coat and wide-brimmed black hat, make his way forward.

“Who is that?” people whispered as Peter Whittemore, the great-great-grandson of Herman Melville, read Chapter 7 of “Moby-Dick” as part of the 10th annual 25-hour “Moby-Dick” marathon.

The marathon began at the whaling museum yesterday, but some 80 participants walked across the street to Seamen’s Bethel to read Chapter 7 — the chapter about the minister’s sermon to the whalers.

Mr. Whittemore, 55, was in the middle of reading when it became clear who the man in black was.

“Oh! He’s the minister!” people whispered, as the real-life Rev. Edward Dufresne, took the pulpit as “Father Mapple” and read his dialogue in character.

The Standard-Times also quotes volunteer Mimi Allen as asying, “We have about 20 people who stick around every year for the entire 25 hours.” (Given what I saw last night at 3 a.m., my guess is that this year there are less than 20.) The Standard-Times also reports that “everyone who stays the entire time will be awarded a Melville biography.”


10:05 a.m. I’m taking a break from writing a memorial service, and stop in for fifteen minutes. Carol has been there since 8:15; I manage to get a chair next to her. Still more people now: perhaps 20 spectators and 20 readers waiting to read, half a dozen volunteers, but it’s hard to get a good count as people are moving about, coming in, going out. Though there isn’t much room on the spectator side of the room, no one will sit in the front row of chairs. We are sitting right behind some of the all-nighters; their faces are pallid, their eyes a little puffy.

A young woman reads:

Chapter one-twenty-two. Midnight aloft — Thunder and Lightning. The Main-top-sail yard. – Tashtego passing new lashings around it. “Um, um, um. Stop that thunder! Plenty too much thunder up here. What’s the use of thunder? Um, um, um. We don’t want thunder; we want rum; give us a glass of rum. Um, um, um!”

Her voice doesn’t quite manage to make me believe it is Tashtego speaking, but she doesn’t need to. The book is speaking through her, as it speaks through each of the readers. The concept of a Moby-Dick marathon sounds a little silly, I suppose, and I find I cannot convey the power of hearing the book read in this way, all at one time, by multiple readers in their individual voices. Even though Carol and I have caught just pieces of the complete reading, we have known it is going on this whole time. We have lost something in our culture, now that we no longer read aloud to each other; audio books, while fine in their own way, are too disembodied. Sitting there in the flesh, listening to a real voice, makes the book come alive in a way that transcends merely reading it by yourself, or listening to a recording of it.