Librarian Cetology

A preacher reads in the Seamen's Bethel, site of a chapter in "Moby-Dick."In John Kessel’s Nebula Award-winning novella Another Orphan, Fallon, a Chicago lawyer, finds himself trapped in the text of Moby-Dick, aboard the Pequod, swept up in Melville’s dense symbolism, his fate suddenly rendered as artificially inalterable as that of Pip, of Queequeg, of Ahab himself.

I felt a new resonance with Fallon’s fate when, on the third of January, I stepped into the predawn dark and snow to drive with several other library staff to New Bedford, Mass., setting of the first few chapters of Moby-Dick, to participate in a reading of the entire text of that novel. Were we to play out a fate as hideous, as didactic, as that of Melville’s whalers? Was our quest in vain? A vast and terrible whiteness did threaten us: a blizzard, that our colleagues warned us would leave us stranded by the road. And our end was whale-related: the New Bedford Whaling Museum, with its scrimshaw, its vast cetacean skeletons, its harpoons hung in cases on the walls.

I’m happy to say that we managed to avoid any bodily injury. But why did we tempt ironic fate? (A colleague recently suffered a leg injury! Another colleague had a long history of whale-related trauma!) Even while we read our assigned passages in our turns, I doubt that any of us could have given a particularly complete accounting of our motivations.

It was, to say the least, an odd experience. Twenty-five hours in all, we found places here and there throughout the Whaling Museum, now under the jaws of a whale, now aboard the world’s largest model ship, to listen as Melville found his way through his bizarrely experimental, unclassifiable masterpiece. It was a new way of experiencing the book for all of us: it took longer, in absolute time, than it would to read the book oneself, but there were no breaks, so the length of time one was with the book, so to speak, was shorter by far. An entirely different kind of reading than we had before encountered, very much informed by the limits of one’s attention span — after a while, there was simply too much information on the minutiae of whaling and whale biology, too much empty ocean scenery, too many odd jokes about Ishmael’s ignorance of whaling (or is it Melville’s?), and one had to flee to the relative security of an overlooking balcony, to loll about like drunken sailors keeping a laggard watch.

What did we learn about Moby-Dick? A few things:

  1. It has parts that are easily as funny as “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Chapter 32, “Cetology,” in particular, is a wonderful thing when read aloud.
  2. Moby-Dick is not one novel, as we are used to thinking of novels today; Melville goes from writing a book that is meant to be funny to a book that is meant to be instructive to a tragic narrative of one man’s doomed quest; the shifts in tone aren’t abrupt, but they’re there, especially when Ahab hijacks the story for the last movement, seizing the entire focus of the piece, and without a shred of psychological realism (but then that’s to be expected). People tend to remember Ahab because his tantrums come late in the book, and include some truly great lines, but he’s not the protagonist. He’s a force of nature just as much as the whale, as the storm, as the sea, just another terrifying event before which our crew is driven.
  3. Melville’s racism, too, was highlighted by the overwhelmingly white New England crowd reading his words. The novel is multicultural, certainly, but neither Ishmael nor Melville himself is equipped to truly render characters like Queequeg, Tashtego, Dagoo, and Fedallah, and they all come off, in part, as caricatures. (Although the question occurs: is Ishmael white? He’s Presbyterian, but that’s obviously nothing like an absolute tell . . . )

We all four returned alive and well, with no missing limbs, all omens effaced by the storm. I found myself unsettled by the experience: I had been unaware, I suppose, all this while, that novels had such an existence in time as suddenly obtruded upon my life, taking 25 hours from me to listen to the text.

Melville played with what a novel could do, or be, in a way that remains interesting today: the Moby-Dick marathon plays with the experience of the novel in just such a way, leaving onlookers adrift and wondering, “. . . how can I hope to explain myself here; and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught.”