New Bedford Whaling Museum
6:10 p.m. We’re a small group listening to the Moby-Dick marathon, sitting in the Jacobs Family gallery underneath the two huge whale skeletons hanging from the ceiling far above: 1 person reading, 11 spectators (the spectators are seated separately from the readers), 8 readers waiting to read or who have recently read, and 5 support volunteers. People are coming and going; there’s only so much Moby-Dick most people can listen to at once; and it is dinner time; and we’re hearing chapter 32 with its lists of descriptions of various kinds of whales, which, while wryly written and actually quite humorous, is probably best in small doses. “This whole book is but a draught – nay, but the draught of a draught.” –but the reader mispronounces it, “This whole book’s a drought, nay but the drought of a drought.”
The next reader begins chapter 33. Beside me, Carol is following along, reading our somewhat worn trade paperback reproduction of the beautiful Arion press book with its wonderful wood-engraved illustrations of whales and whale-related objects by Barry Moser. On the other side of her, Sailboat Chris is following along in his old battered paperback edition.
To my right, a woman follows along with her copy of Moby-Dick; a man has just left clutching his Moby-Dick a little as if it was a precious object. This is an event for book geeks, for people who want to sit in a room with other people who love to read, all reading along as someone reads a favorite book. Moby-Dick is a kind of holy book, at least here in New Bedford, not far from the docks where Herman Melville shipped out on this day aboard a whaling ship and began to gather the impressions that led, by a route as circuitous as the ones reported taken by some ships around the treacherous Cape Horn, to that grand book, neither novel nor “creative non-fiction” but just a book, known as Moby-Dick, or the Whale.
In the front rows sit some people I would judge to be of college age.
Each year, so we are told, some score or two dozen people stay for the entire marathon.
Another chapter ends; another new reader. This reader reads too quickly; he stumbles now and then too. He is not bad, but he is an example of the general state of public speaking in our culture. We do not value public speaking, and we do not know what good public speaking is, not much any more; so I expect nothing better here than reading that sounds like our average conversations: rushed, poorly articulated. A book like this is not our average conversation; its rhythms are more complex, its melodies longer and subtler, its range, both dynamic and emotional, greater, its intellect deeper, its spirit larger; it requires an ear attuned to its music, and more importantly a more practiced tongue to speak it. We in our culture don’t like to hear that we don’t know how to speak, but there it is: just listen, and you’ll hear it to be so.
But maybe this reader was just nervous, for as he comes to the end of his chapter, he warms to the task.
Carol just went and got us some grog, served at “4 bells in the dog watch.” More people have started to come in. Maybe the grog has drawn them, or maybe people have just had time to eat dinner.
My cell phone just vibrated (I was supposed to have turned it off but I’m in the midst of planning a memorial service for Thursday and was waiting to hear from the organist). I ran out of the building into wind and light sleet to answer it. It was my sister Jean, the college writing professor.
“Danny?” she said (she is the only person in the world I allow to call me “Danny”). “Is that you?”
“Yes,” I said, still fumbling with the phone.
“It didn’t sound like you,” she said.
“I was in the Moby-Dick marathon,” I said. “I had to run out to answer the phone, I couldn’t answer it in there.”
“Go back in!” she said. “I’ll call you later.” As a college writing professor, she understands how a Moby-Dick marathon could be a big event for someone.
“It’s kind of boring,” I said, not untruthfully.
“Go back in, I’ll call you later,” she said firmly. Jean’s new book, Rose City, is subtitled “A Memoir of Work”; and after all, isn’t that what Moby-Dick is?
By now, 6:40 p.m., there are 16 spectators, 1 man reading, 23 readers waiting to read (along with some family members), six volunteers, and some more people milling about up the stairs near the Whaling Museum bookstore.
It’s a funny book; the readers get constant chuckles.
People coming and going all the time now; perhaps they’re done with dinner?
A new reader; she is quite good, slow, clear, projects her voice. One woman knitting. One young (college?) couple reading from the same copy of Moby-Dick. One boy reading along in his copy, over in the readers’ section. Sailboat Chris has the book open but he is looking at the reader not the book. Carol has stopped reading and is just listening.
To hear all these diverse voices reading Moby-Dick — you can hear the book speak in its own voice beyond the individual embodied voices.
Chapter 36. 7:05 p.m. Two readers: one man dressed in a conventional suit and tie; one man dressed in black 19th C. coat with harpoon and silk top hat; this latter reading Ahab’s words; and, thank God, he has a Massachusetts accent instead of the college-educated standard English of the other readers: jaw becomes jawr, sharp is shap, starboard is properly pronounced. Thank God.
“Steward! go draw the great measure of grog.”
Not only a Massachusetts accent, honestly come by it sounds like and not just put on as an act, but the best reader we’ve yet heard; not an actor but someone who reads with expression and meaning, and no stumbling over the Quaker archaicisms of thee and thou and ye.
A ten year old boy is reading. He reads pretty well, but the man with him (his father?) should move the microphone down more to his level.
7:40 p.m. Chapter 40, “Midnight, Forecastle.” A chapter written as a play, and so read in this Moby-Dick marathon. We have moved into the auditorium of the Whaling Museum. A dozen people stand on the small stage, and do a reader’s-theatre version of the chapter. The characters speak of light and dark, black and white, and race and racism is present in their words; appropriately, the readers are an interraccial group.
8:00 p.m. We’re waiting for the reading to begin again after chapter 40. Carol chats with a young woman sitting behind us. She is mixing up something, and Carol asks what it is. “MatÃ©,” replies the young woman, something to keep her awake. She and her friend will stay for the entire marathon. Why do they do it? “We just like Moby-Dick,” she says, grinning. She and her friend have pillows and comforters in the little niche under the stairs.
19 spectators, 1 reader, 23 readers waiting (and families), 3 volunteers; perhaps two dozen people wandering up the stairs and in the passage by the bookstore, in the bookstore itself, in the rest rooms, the back room where the chowder is, the side room with the soda machines.
8:20 p.m. I decide I have to go get some work done, and whisper goodbye to Carol and Sailboat Chris. I see Cora out in the courtyard of the Whaling Museum having a quick cigarette; she always reads at two in the morning, she says, and tells me that since I live right across the street, I should come over and hear her read. I ask her about the people who stay for the whole thing. “Oh yeah,” she says, “they come from all over. Six people came down from Nova Scotia last year, they borrowed their parents’ car and just drove down.”
(Now there’s an idea for Jean’s college writing class: a Moby-Dick field-trip — drive to New Bedford next year on January 33, and stay for the whole marathon.)