Friday, January 05, 2007

Reading Moby-Dick in New Bedford.

On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, the New Bedford Whaling Museum held its eleventh annual Moby-Dick Marathon, a 25-hour non-stop reading of Herman Melville's monumental novel. The appeal of an annual public reading of Moby-Dick will likely be lost on the many readers who shudder at the memory of having to read and interpret the tome in high school English classes. Moby-Dick is a famously difficult book, but for natives of Southeastern Massachusetts the novel is also a part of local lore. On January 3, 1841, 21-year-old Herman Melville left New Bedford on the whaling ship Acushnet, having contracted with the ship's owner for a three-year term as a crewman. Though Melville would desert his post on the Acushnet eighteen months later, his time aboard ship provided ample material for Moby-Dick and several other novels besides. The early chapters of Moby-Dick parallel Melville's experience as a young seaman, observing Ishmael's arrival in bustling New Bedford and tracing the events that lead to his enlistment on the ill-fated Pequod. While I sympathize with those who struggled to get through Moby-Dick in high school, I've always appreciated the novel's links with the area where I was born and raised.

Begun eleven years ago by longtime Whaling Museum volunteer Irwin Marks, the annual Moby-Dick Marathon commemorates the connection that Moby-Dick and its author enjoy with the city of New Bedford. The hundreds of readers who recite sections of the novel range from local students and retirees to historians and literary scholars to local, state and national politicians (our congressman usually makes an appearance, and so have Massachusetts' two U.S. senators). Portions of the text are read in languages ranging from French to Hebrew, Danish to Japanese and Portuguese to Turkish. To lend an added note of authenticity to the recitation of Father Mapple's famous sermon, the assembled company moves from the Whaling Museum to the Seamen's Bethel, the "Whalemen's Chapel" where the chapter including the sermon is set. The number of people attending the marathon has grown each year that is has been held, and each year also sees an increase in press coverage of the event. This year, I spotted an article in the Boston Globe as well as a report from the CBC. Of course, the local New Bedford Standard-Times always has something to say about the marathon. This time around, the Standard-Times had an article recalling the memory of marathon founder Irwin Marks, who passed away last September, and another including interviews with a few of the people who came from near and far to participate in the event.

Having enjoyed the Moby-Dick Marathon in the past and having been unable to attend during the two years I was in the novitiate, I had looked forward to attending this year. Unlike in years past, where I was a mere spectator who stopped in to observe part of the proceedings, I thought that this year I might actually stick around for the whole thing. I even considered signing up to read part of the text. In the end I missed out on the marathon altogether, finding myself sick at home with an unexpected stomach bug. Though I've made a full recovery, I regret that I missed out on the marathon. On a spiritual level, I suppose the experience offered me a small but salutary reminder that God's plans for us do not always parallel our own. Red Sox fan that I am, I suppose this is another situation in which I'll have to wait 'til next year. AMDG.


At 1/06/2007 5:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was really enjoying that post until I got to the part where you didn't get to go.

I love "Moby Dick" and I wish I could have been at the marathon. I can't imagine ever having the time to read the book again, but I bought a nice copy a couple of years ago, to entertai the fantasy.

Well, lke you said, maybe next year.

At 1/07/2007 5:42 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


God willing, I'll make it to the marathon next year. I highly recommend checking it out if you can - they usually do it around January 3-4 each year. If you would like to go and are able to do so, let me know ahead of time and I can offer suggestions on places to stay and other things to do in the area. I'm always happy to show people my hometown.


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