Dublin has Dubliners and Ulysses, and it has Bloomsday during which the city comes together to celebrate the two texts. Our small corner of the world — the coastal communities of southern New England — has Moby-Dick. That from the waters of our coastline and from its seaside towns comes one of the greatest novels ever written in the English language is a blessing, and that Mystic Seaport Museum hosts what has to be the definitive celebration of that book is a luxury that few communities have.
From noon on July 31 to roughly noon on Aug. 1, the 33rd annual marathon reading of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick takes place on board the last existing wooden whaling ship in the world, the Charles W. Morgan. You could go at 1 p.m. in the afternoon sun. You could go at 10 p.m. that night, as the stars come out. You could go at 4 a.m. when it’s quite cold. For every minute of every hour between noon on July 31 and noon on Aug. 1, someone will be reading Moby-Dick out loud.
While New Bedford, Massachusetts, boasts a marathon reading at its whaling museum, and the beginning of the novel and some of its most famous chapters take place there, Mystic is the longest-running marathon reading, and of course the only one on a whaling ship, says Melville scholar Mary K. Bercaw Edwards. Also a demonstration squad foreman at Mystic Seaport and an English professor at the University of Connecticut, Bercaw Edwards has been at Mystic Seaport as long as the reading has been going. In the reading’s first year, Mystic Seaport scheduled events for four days from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (No one actually knew how long it would take to read the book cover to cover.) From years of experience, the staff at the replica whaling village now knows that it takes roughly 24 hours to read, and has switched the event to a true overnight marathon.
What do we gain from a straight marathon reading? “It’s a little bit like an Outward Bound kind of thing,” Bercaw Edwards says. The task of conquering such a sprawling, magisterial text in one sitting holds a certain allure, she says, akin to conquering intimidating terrain. Moby-Dick is a landscape of the mind, as those familiar with even snippets of the book are aware. On the face of it, Melville’s book is a chronicle of an almost-psychotic Captain Ahab and his search for the great white whale who took his leg. On another level, it is a catalogue of the most minute details of the practices of whaling and seafaring, the anatomy and behavior of whales, and so on. On another level it is a novel about work and about workers — whalers being the coal miners or factory workers of their day in terms of labor, but really just about any group of workers — and their insane boss, middle managers and technocrats who fall in line. And on yet another level, Moby-Dick is a hundreds-of-pages-long reflection on America: what it had been, what it was at the time Melville wrote, and what he saw it becoming.
Bercaw Edwards identifies in many of Melville’s chapters a “metaphysical lift,” in which the author breaks the bonds of his setting and offers reflections on just about anything and everything. This is where Moby-Dick becomes a pure joy to read, when a perspective and a reflection sneaks up on you and will never leave you.
Reading such a layered book aloud brings out much that is obscured when reading it alone, according to Bercaw Edwards. Chief among them is the humor of the book. Melville and his narrator Ishmael are very, very funny. To be able to hear the laughs and share a joke with fellow listeners is to see another side of the book, even for those already familiar with the text. Bercaw Edwards explains that Melville was accustomed to spoken storytelling, flowing from his days as a sailor on the Acushnet, the real-life whaling ship that provides much of Melville’s knowledge for the fictional Pequod of Moby-Dick.
The Acushnet was built seven months before, and seven miles away from the Charles W. Morgan, so readers can’t get much closer to the real deal without actually going out to sea. Watch the stars move across the sky and listen to the water like Ishmael might have on a calm sea, and listen to the story. See an actor portray Herman Melville and performances by the Tale-Makers children’s theater troupe. Sign up to read a chapter.
Advance registration for the overnight is required. Joining the marathon reading is free with membership or museum admission ($28.95 for adults, $26.95 for ages 65 and up, $18.95 for ages 4-14, and ages 3 and under are admitted free).