Friday night I pounded through Why Read Moby-Dick?, by Nathaniel Philbrick. It was less academic than I expected; mostly it's simply Philbrick talking briefly about the parts of Moby-Dick which he finds most awesome. Nothing wrong with that.
Saturday morning, I collected my friend Paulina and we headed to the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
It turns out that, despite my best intentions, I cannot really just plunge into for a 25-hour Moby-Dick marathon any more than I could expect to run an actual marathon without any training.
I had formed the impression, on no evidence, that this was an informal thing at which you could curl up on the floor with your pillow and blankets, take off your shoes, and snack merrily. Instead, the moment we arrived I was told I could not bring in my backpack and that nothing but small bags would be allowed in until 8:30 p.m. The event starts at noon. This meant that unless we wanted to go eight and a half hours without food and drink (other than from the water fountain), we would have to leave periodically.
Which we did; around two we ducked out and ate our sandwiches, but it was not quite the atmosphere I had pictured (in fairness to the organizers, the atmosphere I pictured also included gorgeous well-read fishermen with a thing for nerdy women). I imagine it does get far less formal as the night wears on.
Some readers I could have listened to all day. When they were reading I didn't need to follow along in my copy, I forgot that I was physically uncomfortable, and I thought that this was the best thing in the world. The man who read the “Nantucket” chapter should record audiobooks for a living. A beaming middle school teacher brought up six of his students, who each read a paragraph of one section, and they were all great and beyond adorable.
Some readers to all appearances had never seen the words on the page before, despite having been assigned their portion months ago. Stumbling, mispronouncing, sometimes simply thrashing about in the middle of a paragraph, having lost the sense of it long ago and now just stabbing at the words without any regard for punctuation or emphasis. You don't know how long ten minutes can be until you are listening to that.
Paulina and I had to switch seats at one point because we were directly in front of a woman who uttered either a smugly wise, “Hmmm!” or hysterical laughter after every single sentence. Occasionally she laughed hysterically in a smugly wise way, as when the text refers to the Pequod as a lucky ship. Because, unlike everyone else in the room, she knows how the story ends! Paulina and I slipped up to the front row after half an hour of this, where I found myself next to a trio who believed that the front row of a reading event is an appropriate place to carry on extended conversations. Hell is other audience members.
Also, those folding chairs were astonishing. I have never felt sensations like that in my lower back, and had rather expected not to until I was in my seventies. Between that and the dehydration and hunger issues, after six hours we gathered our things and limped out. A quarter of the marathon, which is not bad at all. We figure that next year, with a massive meal beforehand and more attention to our water intake, we can easily do ten hours.
I'm making it sound like it wasn't all that great, but that's not the case, and I'm so glad I went. There were people there ranging in age from ninety to six. Families. Young couples flooded in around 5:00, as if on dates. Audience members filled the seats, cluttered up the stairs, leaned from the second story. All there to hear volunteers read from a giant, bizarre novel. It was charming.
So charming, in fact, that this morning, rested and scrubbed, I decided to go back for the last couple hours. I woke up blue, and finding an excuse to drive on highways under an oddly enormous sky while blasting Mumford & Sons was also a factor (where you invest your love / you invest your life), but this morning it was utterly charming as well.
I didn't go anywhere near the chairs, but went halfway up the stairs and leaned over the balustrade. At one point I realized there was a girl of about nine or ten next to me, and she was looking over at my copy of the book. I moved it in between us, pointed to where we were, and we read along together for a chapter. Every reader knows that wonderful moment, when without words or even eye contact you discover there is another reader beside you, and make a tiny accommodation to share the moment, share the story. It warms the heart.
Barney Frank was there, and read a good deal of the penultimate chapter. His district includes New Bedford, so it was politic, but he had obviously done his prep work. It was a very exciting section.
The man reading the very last bit broke down on the last sentence before the epilogue. He started audibly choking up on "then all collapsed", paused, tried to collect himself, and managed in a voice full of tears, "and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago". I don't even know why he was crying, but I cried too. (Although, because I am twelve, I don't know how you manage to do "From hell's heart I stab at thee," without doing a Ricardo Montalban voice.)
Amazing stuff. A couple hundred people turning out to celebrate a book. It doesn't get better than that. The chairs could, though.
Next up: World's End, by T.C. Boyle.