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In community read, Plymouth tackles a whale of a tale

“Leviathan” author Eric Jay Dolin helped kick off Plymouth’s community reading program.

Plymouth Library

“Leviathan” author Eric Jay Dolin helped kick off Plymouth’s community reading program.

Call them optimists. Facing the formidable reputation of the American classic novel “Moby Dick” as a difficult read, the folks at the Plymouth Public Library are promising to make reading Herman Melville’s 19th-century novel of whaling, obsession, and the dark side of the American character “as much fun as possible.”

It’s a long book, too — 830 pages in the Modern Library edition the library is using. To deal with the length, librarian Jessica Connelly said her group book discussions, open to all, will divide this whale of a novel into three parts. Also, nobody will be asked how much they’ve read.

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“If they’ve read a little, if they’ve seen the movie, if they’ve got hold of an abridged version, or an audio book, that’s great,” Connelly said last week. Sometimes other books reference “Moby Dick.” She says a recent book, “Ahab’s Wife” by Sena Jeter Naslund, “connects beautifully. Everyone brings something different to the table.

“What I was surprised by is the humor of it,” she said of her own recent re-reading of “Moby Dick,” an element not obvious during a “force read” for school. “I also got a little nostalgic for the old Yankee archetypes, like the old Cape Codder.”

The library chose Melville’s classic for its summer “One Book, One Community” reading program to coincide with the monthlong cruise of the last surviving wooden whaling ship, the Charles Morgan, from its home in Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport to Boston. Built in 1841, the restored ship will sail around Cape Cod and up to Charlestown, where it will dock beside the USS Constitution July 18 through 22.

Based on an actual attack on a whaling ship in the Pacific by a great whale, “Moby Dick” tells the story of monomaniacal Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the “killer” white whale he calls Moby Dick across the world’s oceans after the whale destroyed a whaling boat and caused the loss of his leg. The diverse and colorful cast of characters includes Ishmael, the novel’s narrator, who begins his tale with the often-parodied invitation “Call me Ishmael,” and Queequeg, his mate and friend, a Pacific Island “cannibal” who claims he suffered indigestion from a feast in which dozens of enemies were consumed.

In addition to the book’s length and ambitiously symbolic plot, readers encounter some heavy weather when it comes to Melville’s lovingly dense descriptions of the factual minutiae of the whaler’s trade. The whole middle section consists of whaling facts and “heavy whaling imagery,” Connelly acknowledged, such as “how to set up a try-works” to boil the oil out of the blubber “or how they cut the head off the whale.”

Given the changes in attitude toward the environment and “saving the whales,” Connelly said, one of the interesting questions to be asked about the novel is “How would a contemporary audience read it?”

Tonight’s discussion, titled “A Commitment You Won’t Regret,” is on chapters 1 through 40. Second sessions take place at the main library on July 9 and the Manomet branch on July 10; and final sessions at the main and branch libraries on Aug. 13 and 14.

Along with its “One Book, One Community” reading program, the library is running a concurrent, related summer program on maritime life pitched toward children’s and family activities.

The program, “Reading on the High Seas,” will bring shark expert John Chisolm from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries to speak on “Marine Life on the Coast” at the main library on June 25. Assistant library director Jen Harris said significant attention will be paid to the great white whale’s oceanic neighbor, the great white shark. According to the library, great white sharks have been tagged off Cape Cod.

Chisolm, a resident of Plymouth’s Manomet village, has appeared at the library before to talk about sharks and other coastal critters and has always drawn a crowd, Harris said.

Public programs pertaining to Melville’s masterpiece and other maritime books will continue throughout the summer. The library kicked off “One Book, One Community” with a recent presentation by Eric Jay Dolin, author of a highly praised book on the whaling industry, “Leviathan.”

“It was spot-on,” Harris said. “While you’re reading Moby Dick, [Dolin] went through the history of American whaling.”

The American whaling industry began in the Revolutionary War period and enjoyed a golden age in the mid-1800s, according to Dolin, when a fleet of more than 700 ships hunted for whales and American whale oil “lit the world.” The discovery of a new plentiful, cheaper fuel near the century’s end turned the lights off on the whaling industry.

“It ended the minute they found petroleum,” Harris said.

Next month the library will host another major authority when Melville scholar Wyn Kelley speaks on July 3 at 2 p.m. on why reading “Moby Dick” is important today. Kelley, a member of the MIT literature department and the author of “Herman Melville: An Introduction,” is a founding member of the Melville Society Cultural Project, based in New Bedford, and collaborates with the New Bedford Whaling Museum. She will speak about Melville’s life, including the author’s own South Pacific voyages, and his writings. An expert on Melville trivia, she will take questions after her talk.

To help introduce readers to Melville’s big book, Plymouth library gave away 100 free copies. Harris encourages readers to sign up for the program on the library’s home page in order to receive information about upcoming events.

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BEHIND THE SCENES

“One Book, One Community”

Book discussion on “Moby Dick”

Manomet Branch Library, 12 Strand Ave., Plymouth Thursday at 6 p.m.

Full schedule of events at www.plymouthpubliclibrary.org

“Marine Life on the Coast”

presentation by shark expert John Chisholm

Plymouth Public Library, 132 South St., on June 25 at 7 p.m.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.
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