November 19, 2012

And then we all giggled at the sperm-squeezing chapter


I am unsure of Moby-Dick‘s place in our canon. I have my doubts about whether it is the Great American Novel, or even whether it is Herman Melville‘s best work. What I do know, after this weekend, is that it is among this city’s most beloved novels, thick enough with laughter and sorrow and surging heights, frothing crests of prose, sentences to drown a reader and buoy them up, a book so changeable and compass-wide that it is, surprisingly, the perfect book to read aloud.

It is not well-known, but we at Melville House are rather partial to the work of Herman Melville. It is difficult, at times, to get much work done, what with all the sea shanties being sung in our office. The whole place smells of tar, wet wool and chowder. The hammocks are a nice perk, the surprise dousings with brine less so. In any case, I leapt at the opportunity (well, sort of awkwardly rolled out of a hammock at the opportunity) when Amanda Bullock and Polly Bresnick invited me to take part in their inaugural Moby Dick Marathon in New York.

The Moby Dick Marathon is just what you’d imagine: the entire book, from “call” to “X”, read by a series of enthusiasts over the course of one weekend. The event began Friday evening at WORD bookstore in Greenpoint, followed by a stretch Saturday at Housing Works Bookstore in SoHo where Bullock is the events coordinator, on to the new and fantastic used bookstore Molasses Books in Bushwick, and then back to Housing Works on Sunday.

The event ran like spermaceti-greased clockwork whenever I was in attendance. (Yes, I admit it, I did not listen to people read from the book for three straight days, and rather regret it. Apparently I need more in the way of fresh air and brunch than some die-hard old salts I saw there.) The organizers kept pace throughout, and handed off reading copies so that there was never more than a few seconds’ pause before the thread was taken up again. There was beer, there was chowder, there was singing and, of course, there was laughter. Moby-Dick, it’s often forgotten, can be quite funny. Half of the audience at any given moment read along in their own copies of the book.

Inevitably, because this was the inaugural marathon, the 160 readers were drawn from a small circle, most of us friends or at least familiar to one another. Some were more famous than others: actors Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan read early on Friday. There were booksellers there, of course, and publishers. Dozens of authors larded the line-up, including Jonathan Ames, Rick Moody, Tania James and Justin Taylor. Bresnick’s own mother and father read late Saturday night. There was more than one Moby-Dick tattoo in attendance. There were actual scholars of the book there. There were people reading it for the very first time and some who read little but. It was a good crowd.

Despite being surrounded by friends, reading Moby-Dick aloud, I found, can be nervous work. We are ill-used to reading with our mouths at all, many of us, and Melville is liberal with odd place names and now-rarely-used words. His cadence is natural but insistent, leading many readers to skip words or misplace a syllable here and there. My own hand shook for a moment when I stood before that room, under the weight of the book and the eyes on me, under the burden of the long, rousing skyward pleas Melville had tamped into my thin ten minute span. I croaked out more “thee”s and “didst”s than should  be asked of anyone not wearing polyester pantaloons and a fake goatee in a regional Shakespearean medley. It mattered little: the novel was good enough to distract anyone from my little quavers, including, quickly enough, myself.

What do we gain from reading the book out loud? If it is only the excuse to say “harponeer” fifteen times in a minute, that would surely be enough. But there is more here. First, the work benefits. Melville is a storyteller, and as I’ve said, his writing, at least in the seafaring stories, has a rhythm to it that is only highlighted when eyes are chained to tongue and the reader is forced to speak the man’s silly dialogues, his grandiose heights of descriptive prose, and more than anything, his somber exaltations of humanity. More broadly, the readership benefits. We were not critiquing the book, or even discussing it. We didn’t perform it. We were not there to buy it. We had just come together as a readership to do only that: to read the thing, together. That’s a rare and proudly contrary instinct when it comes to books, if a happy one. Seeing it followed by so many is a thrill and  a motivation, to authors and publishers, yes, and readers, too.



Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.