Moby Dick Makes For An Epic Marathon

This is the weekend of the annual Moby Dick Marathon at the whaling museum in New Bedford, Mass. Two hundred readers took turns reading the book aloud to a rapt audience.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This weekend, 200 people are plowing through the 135 chapters of Herman Melville's epic "Moby Dick" at the whaling museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Pippin Ross went over to listen to the nonstop reading marathon.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

PIPPIN ROSS: The "Moby Dick" marathon begins as Ray Veary, a local assistant district attorney dressed like a gentleman of the 1800s, offers the book's opening line.

Mr. RAY VEARY (Assistant District Attorney): (Reading) Call me Ishmael.

ROSS: Here's the Cliff Notes - a young man name Ishmael hops a whaling ship out of New Bedford. He gets a gig with Captain Ahab, a guy obsessed with revenge for Moby Dick, a mega-sperm whale who smashed up one of his ships and chopped off one of his legs. At first, New Bedford Mayor Peter Lang reads about Ishmael's early days on the ship.

Mr. PETER LANG (Mayor, New Bedford, Massachusetts): True, they rather ought to be about some and make me jump from spar to spar like a grasshopper...

ROSS: About 200 people seated in chairs and snuggled on blankets are library-like quiet, reading along with books and iPads. Only when Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank reads about Ishmael learning he has to share a bed does the crowd softly chuckle.

Representative BARNEY FRANK (Democrat, Massachusetts): (Reading) At any rate, I made my mind and if so turned out that we sleep together, he must undress and get into bed before I did.

ROSS: The crowd is mostly into the meaning of Melville's writing. Congressman Frank sees the story as America's first step toward going green.

Mr. FRANK: It's a kind of striking thing to think that these enormous wondrous creatures were killed and captured only for their oil. And it was the discovery of electricity, an alternative form of energy, that led to the end of whaling.

ROSS: There aren't many young people in the crowd. Sixteen-year-old Brian Chaliff(ph) says his dad convinced him it would be easier to hear, not read, the book.

Mr. BRIAN CHALIFF: The book is obviously the great American novel and the, you know, our dad, he was an English major in college.

ROSS: Self-described Melvillian David Dowling says doing the marathon read feels like being at sea.

Mr. DAVID DOWLING: We find ourselves going through these sort of roller-coaster moments all the way through those 25 hours. And, you know, invariably we'll get readers who really do nail the language.

ROSS: Like Phil Austin, who is practicing his "Moby Dick" lingo in a private corner.

Mr. PHIL AUSTIN: (Reading) Before the mast, belike, bespeak, bestir, bethink, betoken, bilge pump, billow.

ROSS: Like Captain Ahab, everyone seems determined to capture Moby Dick.

For NPR News, I'm Pippin Ross.

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