Recently, the Google Doodle wished Moby-Dick a happy birthday on the anniversary of its publication.
The big, white whale is 161 years old. But read the first chapter of Herman Melville's masterpiece and you get the eerie sense that the novel is set not in a bygone era but in this very moment.
Listen to what the narrator Ishmael has to say. Broke and melancholy, he decides of his own free will to sign up on a whaler in order to get a bracing dose of sea air. But then he indulges in a little grumble. Why, he asks, has the "invisible policeman of fate" decided to pack him off on a whaling voyage instead of choosing him for a part in the more glorious comedies and tragedies of his day? And what are these momentous events? He lists two of them in capital letters -- "Grand Contested Elections for the Presidency of the United States" and "Bloody Battle in Afghanistan."
One realizes with a spasm of shame that Afghanistan was being battered by the West (the Brits in this case) even then, and that the Obama and Romney of the day were evidently also at each other's throats. Replace the energy-seeking whaling expeditions with today's equally cynical and patriotic oil wars and Ishmael could be talking 2012.
As if to toast this striking political parallel, suddenly, Moby-Dick is everywhere. The cultural calendar is practically bursting with blubber: two read-alongs; a film project, a TV series, and even an opera that opened to good reviews in San Francisco last week. On the film front, the award-winning British filmmaker Lynne Ramsay has finally got financing for Mobius, her 3D sci-fi film that relocates the whale hunt in outer space, and here in the US, spook-lover M. Night Shyamalan has got the nod from NBC to start a put-pilot of Lost Horizon, a television series inspired by the whale adventure.
Film and television adaptations come and go, but for genuine Moby-Dick lovers and bluffers, it's really only the text that counts. Even if they haven't read it - especially if they haven't read it. Moby-Dick remains the great unread American novel, a literary leviathan that many readers understandably quail from. Attempting to remedy this are two very different read-along projects.
Next month, New York City will have its first-ever marathon read of Moby-Dick, over three days, three bookstores, and two boroughs. Now, a marathon read may sound like a tremendous idea, but in fact it is rather quixotic. Unless of course the idea is to read to a choir of already converted Moby-Dick fanatics who can actually quote beyond "Call me Ishmael." Asking a virgin reader to brave a marathon read is like telling the boy Jonah that he can't leave the table unless he first eats his whale -- skin, foreskin, sperm, blubber, body, bones, tail, liver (two cartloads, apparently), and so on -- in a few large mouthfuls. Early on in the book, almost like a warning of what is in store, there's a line that says that whaling is such a vast subject that it may well be regarded as that "Egyptian mother, who bore offspring themselves pregnant from her womb." This metaphor could easily be applied to Melville's sprawling and fertility-addicted opus as well.
I'm willing to bet that very few New Yorkers will last through Chapter 32. Called "Cetology," it contains a detailed elaboration of three different groups of whale (the Folio Whale, the Octavo Whale, and the Duodecimo Whale) and their various subdivisions. Melville begins the chapter by briskly conceding that the whale in essence is "A spouting fish with a horizontal tail," but this short summary doesn't stop him from proceeding to describe in hundreds of lines the skin color, lips, fins, and oil quality of various kinds of whale -- he apparently pinched books from the public library, copied out whole pages of natural history and whaling, and pasted them into his novel.
Perhaps Starbucks should sponsor this New York read: after all the coffee chain gets its name from the chief mate of the Pequod, and lashings of caffeine will certainly be called for to keep the audience awake and lucid. Hats off, though, to event organizer Polly Bresnick, who more than anyone, knows the odds in the game. When she was a student at Bard College, Bresnick staged an all-night Moby-Dick marathon, and read on monomaniacally to the end despite there being "only one other person who stayed up with me."
Which brings me to the second read-along, which I've been saving up for the last so that I can give it the space and praise it deserves. I'm talking about the fabulous online Moby-Dick Big Read organized by the University of Plymouth that started a month ago. Don't worry if you haven't heard of it yet, because it's available on the web.
This project has a dedicated website where a fresh chapter, read usually by a celebrity, is uploaded every day along with an arresting artwork by a well-known artists that captures the theme of that chapter. Some paintings are literal, like the strikingly tattooed face that accompanied the chapter on the magnificent Queequeg, who eats beefsteak for breakfast and shaves himself with his harpoon. Others are metaphorical. For instance, the Breakfast chapter, has the picture of a man suckling a barnacled whale -- it was creepy and unsettling, but also brought home how this giant mammal was the hunted cash cow of its time, and was forcibly made to suckle a whole industry. Even today, as a footnote on the website reminds us, the slaughter of whales for profit continues.
The curators of the Big Read are the British writer Philip Hoare, who won the Samuel Johnson prize for his book on whales called Leviathan, and the artist Angela Cockayne. I learned about this amazing but sadly under-publicized project by listening to a Guardian podcast where Hoare talked about his love of Moby-Dick. "No one has written so well about whales and never will," he said emphatically. Listening to him, it was impossible not to be swept up by his passion for this difficult novel, whose various facets he brought alive - a blasphemous novel, an environmentally equivocal novel, an unmistakable analogy of slavery, an unbelievably erotic novel with a whole chapter on the whale's foreskin, and so on. I urge you to listen to the podcast, if for nothing else but to hear Hoare offering a great Shakespearean explanation for the demonic stirrings that drive Ahab, that terrifying character with "the crucifixion in his face."
It was also reassuring to learn that it took Hoare three attempts before he finally cracked the book. Initially, he was incredibly put off by what he thought was a "dour, Victorian tome overlain with contentious meaning" but when he got into it he was blown away by its subversion and wit and its sheer visceral quality, such as when stripping a whale of its blubber is coolly compared to peeling an orange.
Moby-Dick has 135 chapters, so it will take 135 days for the Big Read to be completed. A stately and thoughtful pace, and just what a book of this power and complexity needs to do it justice -- not three days chock-full of readings. Indeed, Hoare started out by wanting the big read to be a 24-hour affair, but then it took on a life of its own and simply grew and grew.
Every morning I listen in. Some chapters are less than two minutes long. Others, like Cetology, take over half an hour. After listening to a reading, I sometimes read a chapter on the Gutenberg website in case I've missed something or haven't followed the accent of the reader.
So far, all the readers and paintings have been well chosen -- even the slimy-erotic picture accompanying the chowder chapter that made me queasy. In Chapter 4, Counterpane, when I read about how the narrator was punished as a little boy and sent up to his room on a very fine day, only to taken in hand by a supernatural force, I thought back to Maurice Sendak's Max in Where the Wild Things Are. Sendak was a huge admirer of Melville, and called him (and Emily Dickinson) "God," and, who knows, perhaps he had glimmering of this chapter in mind when he wrote his marvelous children's story.
I can't wait to hear Will Self read the chilling chapter in which the color white is described as the color of evil. Or to view the artwork the sculptor Anish Kapoor is scheduled to turn in. Kapoor's gleaming, undulating Bean, which sits in Chicago's Millennium Park could pass off for a stainless-steel whale. And I wonder who will read the thrashing, climatic chapter, The Symphony.
The sad thing is that not many people seem to be tuning in. Often, I'm the first (and only) person to tweet a chapter. Even when British Prime Minister David Cameron did a reading -- both he and President Obama name Moby-Dick as one of their favorite novels -- there was very little activity on the site. It was tweeted barely three times. Comfortingly, unlike politicians, websites don't vanish.
Hopefully, 161 years on, the Big Read will still be alive on the world wide web.