'Moby Dick' Project Brings Book Into 21st Century

Writer Philip Hoare talks about his new project, the "Moby Dick Big Read." From now until late January, a chapter of Herman Melville's classic whale-hunting epic will be available for download each day. Each is read by the likes of Tilda Swinton, John Waters and Stephen Fry.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Imagine this, four months of "Moby Dick." Now this may thrill some of you, but others might ask, why would I willingly subject myself to that?

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Hey, it's just a chapter a day. All you have to do is go online, download and listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIO RECORDING OF NOVEL, "MOBY DICK")

TILDA SWINTON: (reading) Call me Ishmael.

CORNISH: That's actress Tilda Swinton reading chapter one.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIO RECORDING OF NOVEL, "MOBY DICK")

SWINTON: (reading) Some years ago, never mind how long precisely, having little or no money in my purse and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.

PHILIP HOARE: I think it's a really good way of getting it back into the mainstream because this is the greatest American novel but it's so unread.

SIEGEL: That's writer Philip Hoare. He's nearly as obsessed with Melville's novel as Ahab was obsessed with that white whale. Hoare and artist Angela Cockyne, have teamed up to make "Moby Dick" more accessible to 21st century audiences at mobydickbigread.com. And if you think "Moby Dick," published in 1851, is too creaky for the Internet age, Hoare says, think again.

HOARE: Remember, "Moby Dick" itself wasn't edited. It's really like one long blog. Not only that, but the sense of digressiveness of his narrative, which meanders, here, there, and everywhere - the same way as you move through a search engine when you're chasing a subject.

CORNISH: Hoare even ventures to say that if Melville were writing "Moby Dick" today, he might not finish it. He'd get so distracted researching whales online. Well, each day until mid-January, a new chapter of "Moby Dick" will be available, along with an illustration by a contemporary artist. That's 136 installments read by actors, authors, fishermen and British Prime Minister David Cameron. They cost you nothing, but time.

SIEGEL: There are some surprise readers, too. Like celebrated camp film director, John Waters.

HOARE: John said I would never read "Moby Dick" in a million years. And yet, he sat down and delivered this 19th century prose with the most exquisite humor and irony.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIO RECORDING OF NOVEL, "MOBY DICK")

JOHN WATERS: (reading) Not the wondrous cistern in the whale's huge head. Not the prodigy of his unhinged lower jaw. Not the miracle of his symmetrical tale. None of these would so surprise you as half a glimpse of that unaccountable cone, longer than a Kentuckian is tall. Nigh...

SIEGEL: That's John Waters reading chapter 95.

CORNISH: Alas, Robert. You'll have to wait about a month and a half to hear the rest of his contribution.

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