Sobriquet 82.3: The Moby-Dick Marathon; Or, A Whale of a Project

As the airplane I'm taking from Amsterdam to Minnesota clips the southernmost tip of Greenland, I can think of no better place to begin writing about the Moby-Dick marathon reading I organized at Luther College last month. I've long intended to write something about the event, but have been sidetracked by work obligations and a trip to the United Kingdom. The lack of interesting in-flight entertainment this afternoon combined with word processing technology one can carry on board an aircraft, though, makes this the perfect time to stop putting it off.

Before I begin, I want to emphasize that, while the marathon was my idea, the idea of literary marathons or even marathon readings of Melville's novel hardly originate with me. In fact, one of my colleagues at Luther organized a reading of the book twenty years before I even set foot on campus. I emphasize this because some of the media accounts of the event have undeservedly, though well-meaningly, given me a bit too much credit for trailblazing new literary territory.

So, here's the story. I imagine it might be of interest to a few casual readers, many of the participants of the event, and perhaps a few people considering arranging literary marathons of their own.

I can recall encountering the idea of literary marathons while still an undergraduate in the late 1990s. One of my professors had organized a non-stop reading of Milton's Paradise Lost, which, at the time, did not interest me at all. Still, the notion that a group of dedicated, if slightly eccentric, bibliophiles could read an entire work of epic literature in one session stuck with me. Years later, after I had rediscovered Moby-Dick (I'd read it in high school, but remembered relatively little) and fell headlong in love with the book I still consider to be the greatest novel in American literature, I encountered a brief anecdote about the annual Moby-Dick marathon readings held every January at the New Haven Whaling Museum in Connecticut. I decided I wanted to go, but, for various reasons, could never make the event.

Thus, when I relocated to Iowa, having effectively moved out of driving distance of the museum, I realized that it would be unlikely that I could justify skipping classes to attend the reading. The only way I could attend a reading, then, would be to find one closer to home, which, in rural Middle America is not that easy.

I can't pinpoint the precise moment the idea came to me, but it was sometime during my first semester at Luther College, as I was beginning to think about the books I would be putting on my American Novel syllabus for the Spring semester. I knew, both from personal experience, as well as from overhearing discussions among my students that Moby-Dick is an intimidating book and one that is often loathed in the high school classrooms in which it is often assigned more out of a sense of duty than out of an enthusiastic desire to share a uniquely beautiful work of transcendent American art. For these reasons, I could not imagine leaving the book off my syllabus, even though the novel would take a full month of class time to work through. Once I found myself resolved to teach the book, I found myself becoming increasingly excited about it. Loving the novel as much as I do, though, also brought a sense of anxiety to the situation. I really wanted to make the class enjoyable and I certainly did not want students to view the month of Melville as a lull in their semester, so I began thinking of ways to bring my enthusiasm for the novel to my students and nothing seemed as perfect as a marathon reading.

When I mentioned my then-inchoate idea to a colleague of mine, he told me that he had once arranged a marathon reading of the novel at Luther himself. With his marathon as proof that such an event could be successful at the college and his invaluable insight into the behind-the-scenes work as a starting point, I set about arranging the marathon.

I am positively blessed with enthusiastic, community-oriented students in my class at Luther, so when I brought up my plan for a marathon reading on the first day of class, quite a few of my students responded with interest. Without them, the reading would not have been possible. With them, it was one of the greatest experiences in my academic career. Here's what we did:

The Idea:
In order for the marathon to work, you need participants. This is the most difficult part because, depending on reading speeds (more on this in a little bit), a marathon reading of Melville's novel can take anywhere from twenty to twenty-five hours. Reasoning that one person can comfortably read for ten or fifteen minutes at a stretch, I decided to follow my colleague's model and divide the event into time slots rather than ask readers to sign up for a given chapter. Thus, I created one hundred fifteen-minute reading slots. Beginning at four on a Friday afternoon, I intended the event to continue through the night and end at five the following afternoon. In other words, I'd be asking people to read Moby-Dick at two, three, four, and five in the morning. On a weekend.

The Preparation:
I wanted to make the event fun, but before I could even reach that stage, we needed to find a venue. After some deliberation and a good deal of consultation, I settled on the Science building concourse, which was spacious, centrally-located, and full of comfortable chairs.

The next order of business, of course, was to settle on a time and find volunteers to read. Colleges frequently have several events occurring at the same time and Luther is no exception. I wanted to be sensitive to the needs of the campus community and tried to find a relatively calm weekend. Once I did, I made the list of time slots and passed the time sheet around my class, encouraging my students to sign up for one or more slots. Nearly every student volunteered for at least one and several signed up for an hour or more of reading time. Once I had set the ball in motion with my class, I sent campus emails to English faculty and majors. Combined with word-of-mouth publicity, this approach brought several additional volunteers. 

I also contacted the local newspaper and the public relations office. Once a story appeared in the paper and a news release circulated, I began receiving emails from community members interested in participating.

Then things took off. I was interviewed for several newspaper stories, featured on an hour-long community radio program, and the event was mentioned in newspapers around Iowa (including the Des Moines Register) and in a few surrounding states.

The Problem With The Night Watch:
As word spread, I grew anxious because, not surprisingly, most of the early morning reading slots remained unclaimed. When I mentioned this problem to my class, a few students decided to step up and sign up for those least alluring of slots, between two and ten on Saturday morning. We were getting there, but the schedule remained incomplete.

I responded by gently, if persistently, mentioning the marathon to colleagues and inviting them to participate. Quite a few agreed to participate.

Still, open slots remained and I vowed to fill them myself, if need be.

Then I made posters and hung them around campus and sent out a few more emails, and a few more interested students trickled in.

Eventually, the roster filled, but it took until the day before the reading.

Making the Event an Event
So, we had the time and place set up and we had a few heroic volunteers prepared to forego sleep for the success of the reading, but that was it. Now, the idea of reading Moby-Dick is enough of a draw for some people like myself and the novelty of a marathon might attract another group of people, but I wanted to interest as broad a range of people as possible.

Together with my class, we decided to encourage the wearing of costumes and the incorporation of props. The theater and art majors in my class volunteered to find and create nautically-themed items and costumes. One the day of the reading, we had a chest, rope, a ship's wheel, a harpoon, a pasteboard mask (in honor of my favorite passage in the book), and several students dressed as seafarers.

I also provided coffee for the overnighters and asked the English Department for funds for food, which turned out to be fish chowder, oyster crackers, and cheddar Goldfish crackers.

Between the food and costumes, I reasoned, we'd be a draw.

The Event, In Bullet Points:
*The reading turned out to be a wonderful time. It wound up being 22 hours and 28 minutes long, so we ended at 2:28 on Saturday afternoon. I was amazed by the turnout, which peaked at more than thirty audience members at 2:30 Saturday morning.

*In addition to several newspaper reporters, the marathon was filmed for the NBC affiliate covering eastern Iowa. I live-tweeted the reading, which several students followed and even shared with their parents.

*The fish chowder arrived at the exact moment the reader began Melville's "Chowder" chapter. People cheered.

*Several readers did not show up. Various members of the audience, including myself, filled in. We never missed a beat.

*Some students brought sleeping bags and pillows and made the reading a camp-out.

*It was wonderful seeing community members come to the campus to listen to the novel.

Why I'd Do It Again:
One of the nicest things about a marathon reading of a book like Moby-Dick is that you can experience the full-course of an epic, with its lulls and crescendos, communally. Indeed, several students mentioned that they enjoyed the book more by sharing it with others than they had when they read it alone. Humor that might escape one reader draws laughs from others, for instance, and the reader may see the text in a new light.

I was touched by the concern several of my students showed me over the course of the reading. They often asked if I felt too tired and offered to bring me food. One student brought me a full breakfast of pastries and fruit and others volunteered to help clean up the programs I'd made for the event and clear the props from the room so that only the P.A. system (which wasn't our responsibility) remained and I could get home and to bed sooner.

I have always wanted to be the sort of professor willing to spend time outside of class celebrating the literature I love with my students. This experience only makes that desire stronger. My students responded to my quirky idea with enthusiasm, creativity, and generosity and we all had fun with a book so many people often dismiss as being anything but fun. What better reason to do another marathon than that?


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