The Moby Dick Big Read

Whaler’s lookout, Disko Island, Greenland. 2012, by Rosie Snell, courtesy of
Whaler’s lookout, Disko Island, Greenland, 2012, by Rosie Snell, courtesy of

Has anyone else been taking part in the Moby Dick Big Read?

I have, and I’ve been enjoying it. The idea is to listen to a chapter a day of Herman Melville’s whaling epic Moby Dick, using the free audio files provided at this website. They’ve been posting up a new chapter every day since September last year, each one read by a different person. Some readers are local volunteers; others are famous, like Stephen Fry, David Cameron and Will Self. There’s also a visual element: each chapter has a piece of artwork attached to it, like the one pictured here (from chapter 117). The final chapter will be posted at the end of the month.

It’s not too late to join in. All of the chapters posted so far are still available online to listen to or download. The way I’ve been doing it is to download a few chapters at a time, transfer them to my iPod and listen in bed at night. There’s no requirement to listen during the event itself, so you could always download the files and store them away to listen to later in the year when you have more time (you will need a LOT of time).

To be honest, this is a book I would probably never have tackled otherwise. It’s a bizarre, sprawling tale, with the plot often made subservient to long diversions and pedantic detailing of every single aspect of the ship’s crew and equipment. There are whole chapters in which the story is abandoned altogether and the book morphs into a science text-book, with analysis of the different types of whales, the shapes of their heads, etc. There’s a long section on depictions of whales in paintings and books. Just when you think you’ve survived Chapter 55: Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales, you get hit by Chapter 56: Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes. Then, when you think Melville can’t possibly find any more extraneous details to throw at you, he comes up with Chapter 57 – Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth; in Wood; in Sheet-Iron; in Stone; in Mountains; in Stars.

And yet…

And yet I’m enjoying it. There’s something about the story that fascinates me, and something about the digressions and tangents that works. In the early chapters I started getting frustrated, but now I’ve given myself up to it and am letting the great tide of words carry me along in whichever direction it wants. To my surprise, themes and ideas are starting to emerge out of the chaos.

I think the audio format is ideal. I listen late at night, and fall asleep either sooner or later depending on the level of pedantry in which Melville is indulging at the time. The variety of different voices also makes it more interesting, although one small complaint is that once you’ve downloaded the files, there’s no way of knowing who’s reading – it might have been good to add that at the beginning of each chapter, or put it in the file name.

In any case, I’d be curious to know if any of you have come across this site before, and are listening as well? If so, what are you making of it? If not, do you think you’ll join in?

As I head into the final stretch, I’d like to thank those at Plymouth University and Peninsula Arts who went to such effort to put this wonderful, creative, free project out into the world.

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There are 14 comments

  1. I agree this is the only way I could ‘read’ something like this (the digressions would drive me mad). I managed to enjoy The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn thanks to the miracle of audio and a speaker with the most fabulous chocolate brown deep South American accent. A chapter a day of something as taxing as Moby Dick sounds almost do-able. Probably not for me at the moment, but I salute the project as an excellent idea.

    1. Audio does make it easier to read tough books, doesn’t it? When I first read your comment I thought you meant South American as in Latin America, which would have been interesting in itself, but now I get it! Must have been a good listening experience.

  2. I had not heard of this but I love Moby Dick and think that this is a great idea! I agree that this novel lends it self to “listening” experience.

    How long does listening to a chapter take! I hesitate to join in as I have so much going on right now!

    1. The chapters vary a lot – some are just a few minutes, others are 30 or 40. There are 135 chapters, though, so it will take a while! As I said, you can always download and listen when you have more time. Hope you like it if you do decide to listen!

  3. I read about this a while ago and promptly forgot. I tried to read Moby Dick as a child but never got past the first page and left it at that. The writing style isn’t really appealing, however the idea of different readers and famous names… whilst it’s shallow it does appeal. I’ll have to check it out!

    1. I can certainly understand that, Charlie – there are a lot of quite dull whaling descriptions and it’s very slow-moving, particularly at first. It was about 20 chapters before they even got on the ship! Maybe you could try a chapter or two, see how it works out this time around…

  4. I am not taking part in this cool approach to the read, though I wish I was. I re-read “Moby Dick” about a year ago (so it’s too soon for me to jump in again) and loved it so much. I had last read it when I was 15 (a good while ago now) and had long counted it among my favourite novels, though I had lost many of the details over the years. So I am now thrilled to be able to still call it a favourite. I had forgotten about the humour in the early parts of the story and I really liked the cetology sections a lot. (Though I realize I am in a minority with this bit.) I think Melville’s pacing and build-up is genius. I think keeping in mind that with Ahab, we are following along the path of someone who is extremely obsessed, it helps give context to the plethora of minute details supporting the plot.

    1. Ah, at last! It’s good to have a Moby Dick fan weighing in. Glad it’s one of your favourites. I don’t think I’ll be able to say that unless my opinion changes dramatically in the last few chapters, but still I’m glad I read it (or listened to it at least).

      I take your point about obsession, but am still not entirely convinced. The narrator is Ishmael, after all, and he always seems quite detached from everything, just an observer. Ahab is obsessed, but with catching Moby Dick, not with detailing the exact length of every rope and harpoon on the ship. I’m not saying you’re wrong – I think you make a good point. Just not entirely convinced. I’m open to persuasion, though, if you care to come back 🙂

  5. Thank you so much for letting me know about this project! You are a such a life saver,really. I could not see how I could possible get through reading all of the135 chapters (With only 3-4 weeks to read it) for my Maritime Literature Class at Uni. With the stress of so much else to read and too often sit on a train commute with weary eyes, it was really lovely to sit back in my seat, close my eyes and just listen to the audio!

    1. That’s great, Lea! It was fortunate timing, with you mentioning on Twitter that you were reading it.

      Maritime Literature sounds like an interesting class! Made me think about what else I’ve read in that category (I never thought of it as a category before). All I could think of was Sea of Death by Jorge Amado, though there must be others. What else are you reading for that class?

      1. I never knew it to be a category before either but our professor is doing research on the subject at the moment (he thinks its an overlooked genre).
        Besides Moby-Dick we are reading Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Dana, Joseph Conrads Typhoon & a few danish/scandinavian pieces as well. We have been reading Heart of Darkness and Robinson Crusoe earlier with the same teacher who now teaches us on the Maritime Literature, so they are a part of this course as references and examples as well.

        1. Hi Lea
          Very interesting. Just defining the category like that makes me think of the books in a different way, with the sea as much more than just an arbitrary setting. Hope you enjoy the class!

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