Last weekend I went to the Moby-Dick marathon, an annual event in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where much of the landlubbing early part of the book is set. It’s the second time I’ve attended the Marathon, but I’ve never read Moby-Dick. Ahem, yes. You read that correctly. I consider myself a Melville fan, having read a bunch of his short stories. I’ve been to his house, seen the mountain that is supposed to look like a whale, and I had a t-shirt that said “I Prefer Not To” that I wore to such shreds and tatters that it eventually looked like I preferred Toto. After being a spectator at last year’s 25 hour event, I vowed to call the signup number the instant they started taking volunteers, but like so many vows launched from the spurs of disappointment I got lazy and distracted and missed it by a few days and got a call that said I was on the wait list. High on the wait list. I never heard another word from anyone at Marathon headquarters. But anyway, that’s all besides the point, water under the bridge, under the bilge-pump. I showed up a couple of hours in on Saturday, and it was a great time. It was my third time in New Bedford, and every time I pull into town, particularly walking on the cobblestoned, hilly streets downtown, it’s like being greeted by a relative with a very distinct cologne and hug—let’s call it History.
A few things that stood out for me at the Marathon: the range of readers, in terms of age, sex, ease in the spotlight, and delivery, is wide, which is part of the joy, part of the pleasure of the thing. Last year I just listened hands-free, but the majority of those present follow along with one or another copy: some with battered hand-me-downs that look like they were rescued from the Pequod on its way down, some on their spanking new Kindle fires, and some, like me, having purchased one of the several editions available in the gift shop. The gift shop actually has a great selection, including a pop-up book, plenty of books about whales and whaling in general, DVDs documenting the local Cape Verdean population, and the Norton Critical Edition for those who want the skinny on what Camille Paglia has to say about “Moby Dick as Sexual Protest.”
But back to the readers. Much of the mirth of the whole event is embodied in its democratic spirit. It is all mic-ed and videotaped and formal, so there is a sense of being at a press conference. Some were nervous in obvious ways, some were plain and unobtrusive, some sounded like professional readers of audiobooks, and some sounded like they’d just stepped out of lifeboats, voices shivering and reeking of brininess. Every so often the crowd would single out a reader for applause, either because they delivered with uncommon flair, inflection, or period garb, or because they were younger but just plain got through the sentences, no small feat. Almost everyone, even those whose readings came trippingly off the tongue, gets stymied at least once on some aspect or other of Melville’s syntax, which in its density and its formalisms and its inversions of contemporary colloquial speech tends to unfoot the casual wader-in with a sharp rock or a sudden breaker, and his prose at times seems to possess an undertow as well. It would be easy to be cocky from the safety of the audience, just as it would be easy to look down at the podium through the whale skeletons that dangle there, thinking that while massive, they are just bloated decorations (can a skeleton be bloated? I’m here to tell you that the answer is yes), trophies on display, mighty but docile mobiles. still dripping oil continuously through what looks like an IV tube into a vial. But the truth is that #1 The whale skeletons are Sublime in the old-fashioned “too-big-for-my-brain-gorgeous-but-could-destroy-me” sense. And #2, I’m sure that in reading, I would’ve stumbled too.
The spirit of the festival is not about getting the words right—Melville already did that—but about getting through them, sending the baton onward, keeping the spirit of the book alive, the whale if not still breaching or spyhopping or lobtailing, then still giving forth its steady, unceasing trickle. It’s the opposite of American Idol where everyone is under scrutiny. Thus when you see an elementary school student stand at the podium and read a passage, you just don’t worry about how much she grasps of what she’s reading or judge her on a stumble or two. Rather, you have the sense of her (and you) being part of an ongoing tradition, an instinct that one day she will better understand the words she’s dispatching forth with great care, leaning on their elegance rather than indulging in the chaos lurking at their edges. In this way, I was most reminded at the Moby-Dick Marathon of the Passover Seders of yesteryear that I attended at my grandfather’s house. Many Seders apparently now include fish, representing the Leviathan, but for me the connection is more about the spirit of the whole than any individual aspect. It’s all there—the “sacred text,” the Haggadah, filled with commentaries, at least if you splurged for the Norton Critical Edition. The rituals—why for this chapter do we shift upstairs to read right in front of another skeleton? Answer: Because it is the chapter called “Cetology,” all that smothering whale lore and anatomy and science, plus it is edging close to dinner-time, and if we didn’t stretch our legs and collectively move ourselves away from the temptation of the exits, we’d all sneak out during this chapter, leaving some pour soul to spout about whales to an empty museum, the marathon’s loneliest mile. Instead, though, we stayed—I caught myself, stuck it out, tried to hush my groaning stomach, and so did most everyone else.
The Passover Seder, of course, also includes specified passages for children, such as the youngest, who will likely begin reciting the four questions before she or he is old enough to have a clue what they mean, but will gradually grow into them, until one day maybe he or she is at the head of the table, or like me, non-practicing, at least has some fond memories. The Seder also accounts for a certain amount of restlessness. It is interactive, for instance, and dipping the finger in the wine/grape juice and dabbing it on the plate for each of the ten plagues felt like recess to me as a kid. And then of course there was the search for the hidden matzo, the Afikoman, which is traditionally stolen and concealed so that the kids have reason to stay up. Let us not forget that it was a certain restlessness that led Melville to sea to begin with, and Ishmael accordingly. In New Bedford, my grownup self reveled in the freedom to go roaming around the museum while reading, checking in intermittently with the story while also taking in the paintings and exhibits, shifting vantage points, people-watching as much as I was studying Starbuck, Queequeg, and Ahab. Flipping through a copy of Matt Kish’s illustrations—one for each page of the book—I felt like I’d found the Afikoman.
When I broke for dinner after “Cetology,” I tried to keep up my reading in a little Portuguese restaurant, wanting to keep pace. It wasn’t the same, though, that individual experience; I found myself missing the camaraderie, the crew, the sense of a shared labor. When I got back to the museum a few chapters later, the place was almost empty, with a few stragglers still lounging about reading, but the podium dormant. So they had broken for dinner after all! And I hadn’t been able to discipline myself. I was about to sink into some lounging of my own when I heard a battle cry through the wall: “Avast the chorus!” (or something like that, I’m cheating now and looking at the book). I followed the sound to the door of the auditorium, where I gingerly loitered at the handle. “You can go in,” the guard snorted. When I did, I found the place packed. It was the play scene, being reenacted in full sailor regalia, a fight about to break out on the stage, every seat packed. There had been no dinner break. The Marathon was in full swing. I left a couple of hours after that, responsibilities calling me home. But I am vowing: this is the year that I finish Moby-Dick. And next year in New Bedford. L’chaim!