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Surviving Moby Dick marathon

Jan 1, 2003

The fourth annual Melville Marathon held January 3 at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, proved, indeed, quite a long haul.

The crowd, at first about 50 of us, assembled around noon for the complete run through of Melville's Moby Dick. The readers sat in straight-back chairs, on a raised platform resembling a quarterdeck, and the spectators gathered all about, some in front, others interspersed throughout the museum.

We all settled down into Melville's prose, the readers conveying an enthusiasm that was almost palpable. About three hours in, some stragglers were still coming through the door, and it was interesting to note their expressions as they first heard the sounds of Melville's constructions coming vibrantly through the speakers that lined the giant replica of the whale ship Lagoda. From chapter 41, we learned that Ahab once "dashed at the whale, as an Arkansas duelist at his foe, blindly seeking with a six inch blade the fathom-deep life of the whale."

Possibly the most popular chapter, and the one that seemed to bring back a few who had given up hope, was chapter sixty-four, "Stubb's Supper." Admittedly, the cetology chapters had sucked much of the life from the crowd, but everyone thrilled to Stubb's comically insisting that the chef deliver a sermon to the sharks.

In the late evening we came to chapter 72, "The Monkey-Rope"; we were more than halfway through, and Melville's take on humanity's shared brotherhood melded perfectly with the glad expressions passed around that conveyed that, yes, some of us might actually make it through this thing. In the early morning, we enjoyed chapter 93, "The Castaway," a bit of swashbuckling adventure that shot some life back into the proceedings.

It was shortly after this point that I found myself almost unable to take anymore. The slower, more metaphysical chapters had the unfortunate timing of coming throughout the early-morning hours when the fatigue factor was at its greatest. Chapter 112, "The Blacksmith," was the Heartbreak Hill of this marathon, and its talk of suicide had me on the verge of concocting my own metaphysical notions of how best to off myself as I sat in my chair. With about a hundred pages left, the crowd was down to a handful. One woman, a true Ishmaelite to judge from her Herman Melville t-shirt, offered me a ginger snap. "Bartelby liked them," she said. Ishmaelites are like that, I guess. My head was spinning.

Near about one o'clock in the afternoon the next day, as the final words of the epilogue passed into silence, the remaining few had at last crossed the finish line. I thought for a second that I would join the little circles of people discussing the event, but as I stood up and felt my legs buckle, I thought better of it. Next year perhaps.