Last November, New York City saw its first ever marathon reading of Herman Melville's classic: Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. The reading crossed the span of three days and approximately twenty-six hours. The entirety of the novel was read in ten-minute installments by boatfuls of participants in three different locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The readers and audience were comprised of writers and actors, scholars and amateurs, all sharing in a powerful and wholly American story. For a young undergrad student like me, it was an opportunity to read the book for the first time.
The idea for the Moby-Dick Marathon was born a year prior at a marathon reading of Melville's short story "Bartleby the Scrivener." Amanda Bullock and Polly Bresnick, two friends who both shared a love of whales and literature, conceived it. They decided to hold it the weekend following November 14, 2012, the 162nd anniversary of the New York publication of Moby-Dick, and they modeled it after the marathon that occurs yearly at the Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts. It was a bold experiment, a testament to Ishmael's guiding principle of attempting all things and achieving what can be achieved.
November 16—The First Day
The journey through Moby-Dick began in the concrete basement beneath WORD bookstore in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, a few blocks from East River. A slideshow before the presentation displayed the text from "Etymology" and "Extracts" placed over different images from artist Matt Kish's project: Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page. (Kish also donated several originals from the book and two additional pictures made especially for the marathon, to be auctioned off for charity.) Broadway and film actor Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, Little Miss Sunshine) read the universally known opening lines. The owner of Brooklyn restaurant Little Neck read the chapter "Chowder" while attendants drank the chowder that he had donated. [End Page 104]
What struck me more and more as Ishmael made his journey from New York to Nantucket was how funny the book is. When people talk about Moby-Dick, it is seldom referenced how uproarious it is, especially in those first chapters of Ishmael and Queequeg's unlikely partnership. By the time the Pequod set out to sea at the end of the night, I had a developed a warm affection for Ishmael, Queequeg, and the whole motley crew. [End Page 105]
November 17—The Second Day
The next morning, at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in Manhattan, we continued the journey. Readers clamored up to the stage in quick succession and enunciated the crew of the Pequod's misadventures and Ishmael's long catalogs of all that he knew about whales. A group calling themselves The Pequod Players enacted the theatrical chapters 37-40 including "Midnight—Forecastle." They took full advantage of the bookstore's multilevel space and brought the scene to life in a way that was effective without overstatement.
At four in the afternoon, the crowd made the journey from Housing Works in Manhattan to Molasses Books in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Beers were opened and whiskey passed around as we stuck with the Pequod through "The Town-Ho's Story," hunting whales, and Ahab's vengeful rage long into the night. The writer/humorist Jonathan Ames gave a hilarious reading of the chapter "The Pequod Meets the Rose Bud." Co-organizer Polly Bresnick and her family closed out the reading around midnight. Polly and her father Paul Bresnick have matching tattoos of Ahab's doubloon. [End Page 106]
November 18—The Third Day
We reconvened at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe for the final day. I was exhausted after two long days of reading. When Pip had his breakdown and Queequeg carved away his own coffin, I almost cried. I ended up reading the chapter "The Pequod Meets the Rachel," one of the most powerful and heartbreaking tales in the book. With a roomful of silent attendants, we finally came to the end and the momentous defeat of the Pequod by the great white whale.
Through the marathon, I felt I had physically experienced the Great American Tome. I felt every word still weighing on me as I made my way back to Long Island. Moby-Dick is a daunting book, and I can think of no better way to experience it for the first time. I have never been more proud to be a part of a community. I am looking forward to attending the Marathon for many more years of gathering together to experience American literature's great white whale. [End Page 107]