Thursday, January 14, 2016

The White Whale, redux!

Last weekend we participated in what I hope is becoming an annual ritual:  the Moby Dick Marathon (MDM) at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.  Loyal readers may recall that I read Moby Dick in 2014, spurred on by my husband and son who had both recently taken the plunge, er, voyage.  The following January I signed up to read in the MDM, and we all enjoyed it so much that Peter joined me in reading this year, and Isabel participated in the Kid's Marathon (reading an abridged version, natch). This was the 20th anniversary of the MDM, so there was a lot of media interest and general excitement about the whole affair.  You can read it about in the Boston Globe, HuffPost, and even hear a story about it on WBUR.*

But anniversaries aside, here's how it works every year.  Moby Dick is read, start to finish, stem to stern, spout to tail as it were, over the course of 25 hours on a cold weekend in January.  It was the New Year when Ishmael and Queequeg set out on their odyssey, from New Bedford, and it was from here also that Melville himself set out on his own whaling adventure aboard the Acushnet.  So, we begin at the beginning.  Someone famous always gets to read the first chapter or two.  (This year, it was Nathaniel Philbrick, author of many books including In the Heart of the Sea:  The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, about the vessel upon which fate some of the tale of MD is based.  And, conveniently, of which a major motion picture is about to open at a theater near you.)

Anyway, the opening chapters are read in a spectacular three-story gallery that contains a huge scale model of a whaleship that you can clamber about in (the Lagoda), and harpoons and prints and maps and general whaling stuff.  It is a bit distracting, but there is a big crowd because, well, call me Ishmael!  One of the most famous opening lines in all of English-language literature!  When the story moves to the Seaman's Bethel across the street, so move we, to attend the service described in the novel, complete with choral-society performed hymn and fierce sermon about - who else - Jonah.

After the action in the story leaves the Bethel, the reading continued this year in a spanking new fourth-floor gallery at the Wattles Jacobs Education Center back at the Museum, with a broad view of the gray, blustery port.  Peter and I took our cue, and read most eloquently from chapter 11, about Ishmael and Queequeg basically getting to know each other by having a smoke and sharing a bed.  I think they were running behind at that point, as we felt our time was cut just a wee bit short.  But the important thing is that we acquitted ourselves with aplomb, tripping over nary a word and letting Melville's rich phrasing roll off our lips like the great shroud of the sea . . . .

Here's me and Petey getting ready to read.

Others would read chapters in Mandarin, Hebrew, Dutch, French, and Portuguese and probably some others that I've forgotten now.  You could even attend a full reading of an abridged version in Portuguese, should you choose.

We Laskins set a course for Cambridge after our reading, given other social commitments, but the event continued into the next afternoon, when the MB Whaling Museum president would read the final chapter "and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago."  Last year, I read toward the end, so we stuck around for the dramatic finis.  It is pretty awesome.

Before all of this started, the Kid's Marathon took place.  About 50 youngsters took turns reading chapters from the Great Starts edition, and they were live-streamed to Iceland where it was being read simultaneously - it was some joint project about ocean conservation, which MD is often used to support.  Given our early spot in the main marathon, the organizers gave Izzy the final chapter, which she read with some brio and great poise.  You can see a video of her reading on my facebook page, and if Bill ever gets his act together, there is a video of me and Peter, as well.

The great thing about the MDM is that it is celebrating a big, gnarly, breathtaking, weird, and generally fabulous NOVEL - a book!  Who gets excited about old, wordy books anymore?  The young man standing next to me at the Bethel, underlining something in an already-dog-eared and bookmarked and heavily hand-annotated paperback copy.  And the others toting around the heavy volume that we have.  And the e-readers.  And so on.  There is also a loyal and devoted set of volunteers who make the whole thing happen ("Everyone who works here is an older lady" said Isabel.  I explained the concept of the docent to her.)  But the audience, and participants, are just everyday people like us.  Some students, some older people, some families, some singles, all united around one story.  They sit respectfully, or recline on the floor, books or e-readers in laps, luxuriating in the splendidly complicated language (no one-thousand-most-common-words here), chuckling together at the humor, and silently enduring the final hours of the chase, as Ahab gives into his madness and ends up, well, perhaps you should read it to find out.  Or you can join us next year for MDM21, because we have nailed our doubloon to the mast and plan to be there.  I desperately hope to get to read the chowder chapter ("Clam or cod?") someday.

ADDENDUM:  holy cow, I forgot about DICK.  If you've read Moby Dick, or maybe even just thought about it, or really if you just like words and humor, you should get DICK the Game and play it with your friends.  It takes words and phrases from MD, and asks you to complete modern-day sentences with them.  It is snorting, pee-in-your-pants funny.

*If you look very closely at the photo that accompanies this story, perhaps click on it to see a larger version, you will see Bill scratching his head way back in the corner of the Bethel.

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