Tag Archives: Herman Melville

Moby-Dick marathon 2008

Screen grab from the video showing someone holding a book.

Every year, the New Bedford Whaling Museum hosts a Moby-Dick marathon, where Herman Melville’s entire novel is read aloud. I went over on my lunch hour, and this is what I saw and heard….

(You’ll hear the voices of Scott Lang, mayor of New Bedford, and Barney Frank, our representative to Congress, among others.)


Note: video host blip.tv is defunct, so this video no longer exists.

Moby-Dick marathon, finis

I managed to catch much of the last hour of the Moby-Dick marathon. I walked in at 12:08, Chapter 134, “The Chase — Second Day”; Carol came in just after me. They saved the best readers for last, including a repeat appearance by Peter Whittemore, the great-great-grandson of Herman Melville. By my estimate, just over a hundred people in the room to hear the end of the book. Carol heard almost all of that last hour; I had to duck out for a phone call about tomorrow’s memorial service.

This year, thirteen people stayed for the full 25 hours, including people from New Bedford, Westport, Nantucket, and Centerville, Massachusetts; Connecticut; Washington, D.C.; Maryland; and Nevada.

The marathon ended at 1:03 EST, with these last words:

And I only am escaped alone to tell thee. JOB

The Drama’s Done. Why then here does any one step forth? – Because one did survive the wreck.

It so chanced, that after the Parsee’s disappearance, I was he whom the Fates ordained to take the place of Ahab’s bowsman, when that bowsman assumed the vacant post; the same, who, when on the last day the three men were tossed from out the rocking boat, was dropped astern. So. floating on the margin of the ensuing scene, and in full sight of it, when the half-spent suction of the sunk ship reached me, I was then, but slowly, drawn towards the closing vortex. When I reached it, it had subsided to a creamy pool. Round and round, then, and ever contracting towards the button-like black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle, like another ixion I did revolve. till gaining that vital centre, the black bubble upward burst; and now, liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin like-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side. Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirge-like main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.


I see in my copy of Moby-Dick the following written in pencil, in my writing, after the word “Finis”: July 4, 1984; that date, I guess, when I finished reading the whole of the book for the first time. It would have been marvelous to hear the whole of Moby-Dick read aloud this time; maybe next year.

Moby-Dick links:

Online Moby-Dick, marred by occasional typos but easy to navigate and search.

Moby-Dick marathon Web page on the site of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

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.

Moby-Dick marathon, part 2

New Bedford Whaling Museum

2:55 a.m. Chapter 78. 1 man reading, 4 spectators wide awake and sitting upright, 4 spectators asleep and lying down (one snoring too audibly), 3 volunteer staff, 7 readers awaiting their turn to read.

I had awakened suddenly at 2:35 a.m. “Want to go over?” I had asked Carol; amazingly she had come awake enough to reply rationally (she’s a very sound sleeper); “No, I don’t need to go,” she had said. “Guess I don’t either,” I had said. But I couldn’t get back to sleep, light sleeper that I am, and over I came.

Two of the sleeping spectators have come awake. I assume that these eight are the ones who, this year, are staying for the whole marathon reading of Moby-Dick. The young woman Carol spoke with last night is one of them, now attired in pajamas and bathrobe. Two more spectators have come awake. Less formality at this hour: the spectators who are awake whisper among themselves now and then.

A new reader, a good one, who manages to make chapter 79 lively. In spite of his good reading I’m definitely sleepy. Plus I think the snoring behind me is having a soporific effect.

Chapter 80 describes the whale’s vertebrae, and I look up at the skeletons hanging from the ceiling above me. I find Melville’s descriptions of whale vertebrae to be fanciful.

One of the spectators is asked by a volunteer to read (presumably a reader has slept through his or her alarm). He reads with real passion of the chase and the harrassment of the great old Sperm Whale in chapter 81; and when he’s done I head home to return to bed.

Moby-Dick marathon

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. “Maté,” 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.)