Published today on Killing the Buddha…
Last Friday night, a man late in his years and a recent recipient of news about his body that no man wants to hear, leaned in close to me and asked me a question. The air was heavy with mortality, and its twin emotion, love. What his question was is irrelevant, but the answer, I realize as I sit down to write about a marathon public reading of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick last weekend, is not. My answer was about how I cherish the quiet spaces in life. Time without interruption. Time for deep conversations or a sensuous focus on a single subject. Time to get into the grit of life, and let it unfold. I am decidedly of the mind that that’s where all the good stuff happens. I also feel like these moments, in our hyper-communicative lives, are becoming extremely rare. We share more, with more people, but we stay on the surface of an unfathomable ocean.
At noon the next day, I stepped into a space that felt deep and from some other time. The approach, rumbling down cobblestone streets, helped. The entrance to the new Bedford Whaling Museum was plugged with people, some (including myself) laden with sleeping bags and backpacks of snacks. It was the fifteenth annual Moby-Dick Marathon, a non-stop reading of the epic tale from the site of Melville’s own departure on a whaling ship in 1841. My friends and I were in it for the long haul. I, I must admit, had never read the book. I knew it was about a ship, and an obsessive captain, and a whale.
And so I learned about Ishmael and Ahab and the white whale and their adventures. For more than a day, it was just voices. One after the other, 180 readers stepped up to the mic for a ten-minute stretch each over the course of 25 contiguous hours. You could look at the number affixed to their sleeve and then the program and perhaps figure out who they were: notables such as Barney Frank (MA congressman) or Peter Whittemore (great-great-grandson of Melville), or simply “Retiree” or “Melville Aficionado.” Though we moved venues a couple of times, mostly we were settled in the museum’s Jacob’s Family Gallery, transformed into a space of words and whispers. Whale skeletons, suspended from the ceiling, hung over our heads. A blue whale exuded oil from its bones that collected in a small flask that would take decades to fill.
Nearing midnight, the crowd had thinned. I had signed up as a substitute reader, placed my own S-14 label on my arm and it was as I was getting sleepy that one of the organizers rested a hand on my shoulder and asked me to read. As I stood at one podium listening to the prior reader finish and awaiting my cue to begin, I saw that it was snowing outside and I smiled. And then with his nod, I began to read of the “power and malice” of sperm whales, as noted by our young sailor. Call me, not Ismael, but a romantic; I felt like I was taking part in some small yet wondrous bit of history.
For reading aloud is a dying art. When did you last read something, more than a snippet from the newspaper, to someone close to you? When was the last time you had something read to you? A poem? An essay? A book? A long book? Jeff Sharlet, who founded this website, (and, it’s not unrelated, named his blog, “Call Me Ishmael.”), was once my professor. He made us stand at the podium and read our work aloud to each other. “Go to book readings,” he commanded. “As writers, they are your church services.” Some of the readers in New Bedford were born preachers, in this respect. They read neither too slow nor too fast. They lingered over words. They savored the stage directions of punctuation. Others were young, or inexperienced, or melodramatic. The resulting flavors were humorous (when an English captain took on a thick Brooklyn brogue) or painful (when the most basic words were mispronounced), yet there was always something fabulously democratic about the mélange. Our lack of reading aloud, or perhaps more accurately, our lack of listening, is the death of our pronunciation. Moby-Dick is advanced; there are deceptive nautical terms where only half the letters are pronounced and 25-cent words galore. When they were spoken correctly, they sang. We listeners learned.
The other blessed thing of these epic events, these extended spaces of quiet, is the stages they pass through. In the beginning, hundreds of us were in a room filled with the Lagoda, a half-scale model of a whaling bark, its mast inches from the cathedral-height ceiling. We moved to the Seaman’s Bethel across the street for the sermon section, sitting in the stiff wooden pews where Melville once sat, listening to a real-life pastor play the part of Reverend Mapple as he thundered the story of Job from a boat prow pulpit. We returned to the museum and settled into the Jacob’s Gallery, taking short forays into the theater and another exhibition room to surround a sperm whale skeleton for a soliloquy on cetology. The hours ticked on. People came and went. By three in the morning, there were fifteen people sitting in folding chairs and another dozen snuggled in sleeping bags in the upper corridor. I slept myself, on and off, and then periodically leaned up, book in hand, and resumed listening. As light began to stream in the window, a new wave of people arrived with coffee cups in hand, stomping fresh snow from their boots.
But the movement in body was minimal, not more than 20 or 30 minutes spent in transition, the rest in continual reading, page to page, chapter to chapter, reader to reader. The audience was hushed. Attentive. There were a few Kindles and iPads, but those with computers were rare and tended to tuck themselves away into far corners. A few women knitted. Most of the audience bent over copies of the book, their own—dog-eared and pencil-marked—or borrowed from the museum. If we spoke at all, it was in a whisper. I learned nothing about the friends of friends I was with until we buckled up in the car for the ride back to Boston early Sunday afternoon.
Except for the brief time when we crossed the street to the Seaman’s Bethel, I had not left the museum but once. A spell was broken as a friend and I stepped into the cold morning in search of a coffee. Early on in Moby-Dick, Ishmael talks about the love of extended stays on sea, far from daily news.
For the most part, in this tropic whaling life, a sublime uneventfulness invests you; you hear no news; read no gazettes; extras with startling accounts of commonplaces never delude you into unnecessary excitements; you hear of no domestic afflictions; bankrupt securities; fall of stocks….
I imagine the quiet of the sea, the drama only in moments of storms or the slaughtering of whales. As the barista fixes my coffee, I glance at the newspaper lying in wait. A massacre in Tuscon. We leave, return to the museum and the sacred space within, find solace, and escape, in the auditory marvel of a story well told.