Call him Ishmael.
WGBH executive arts editor Jared Bowen will serve as the honorary Ishmael on Saturday, Jan. 4, kicking off the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s annual “Moby-Dick” marathon reading, starting at noon.
“The New Bedford Whaling Museum reached out to me and asked — I was delighted to do it,” Bowen said. “I’m really enthusiastic about what the museum is doing and how they’re bringing people together. It’s pretty striking.”
Hundreds are expected to gather in New Bedford — from school kids to Melville scholars — to read Herman Melville’s 1851 epic in its entirety. All told, it takes about 25 hours.
Some 200 volunteers take turns reading, while others gather by the world’s largest whaleship model to listen. The museum is free and open to the public during the marathon. Still others can watch via livestream on YouTube, or follow #mobydickmarathon on Twitter.
Since 1997, the museum has celebrated the anniversary of Melville’s storied January 1841 departure from the Port of New Bedford aboard the whaleship Acushnet with the literary celebration.
Everything kicks off Friday, Jan. 3, with a ticketed dinner and presentation by Melville scholar Mary K. Bercaw Edwards. Aside from the massive reading of the whale tale, attendees can find theatrical performances, art exhibitions, lectures and discussions, a kids read-a-thon, and a trivia session. Fuel up on coffee, chowder, beer. A local acting troupe is set to perform one of the chapters.
Not everyone stays the whole time — but those who do earn a prize when the book reaches its end, at around 1 p.m. Sunday.
A Portuguese-language reading of Tiago Patricio’s abridged “Moby-Dick” starts at 3 p.m. Saturday, with readers from New Bedford, Portugal, the Azores, and Cape Verde taking turns in a virtual marathon via Skype.
“New Bedford has strong and rich ties to the Portuguese diaspora, and we celebrate each culture that has made this region so unique,” explains Tina Malott, director of marketing and public relations for the New Bedford Whaling Museum. “Given how our current region’s cultural makeup is largely a result of the whaling era, ‘Moby-Dick’ holds a dear place in our hearts as a narrative from the era.”
“I think that more than ever we need convenings like this,” said Bowen. “Where we can make a deep dive into literature, consider history, consider ourselves, and gain some perspective in very troubled times.”
There have been other notable Ishmaels over the years, according to the museum, including Nathaniel Philbrick, the New York Times best-selling author of “In the Heart of the Sea” and “Why Read Moby-Dick” in 2016; Melville’s great-great-grandson Peter Gansevoort Whittemore took the role in 2017; and Jim Braude and Margery Eagen, cohosts of WGBH’s Boston Public Radio, who shared the role in 2019.
“I love hearing the book read aloud, and each time find that I’m hearing words I never heard before, or in that way before,” MIT Senior Lecturer Wyn Kelly, a founding member of the Melville Society Cultural Project, said in an e-mail.
The MSCP is a research-oriented group of scholars within the Melville Society dedicated to fostering a critical understanding of Melville’s writings, life, and times. Six Melville scholars from six different states comprise the Melville Society Cultural Project, according to the museum.
“Having just taught the book this fall, I was struck by students’ excitement. They were especially thrilled that the book addresses issues important to them — climate change and species decline, racial and social justice, fluid sexuality and gender roles, art, language, and history, and, let’s not forget, heaps of salty humor,” Kelly said.
“The New Bedford marathon is a huge community festival that celebrates the city's labor, history, and culture during momentous times,” said Kelly. “I love that New Bedford is still a working port, that Melville might still feel very much at home here. I sense his spirit here and think maybe I’ve gotten a whiff of his pipe tobacco smoke when I turn a corner and catch a puff of salty air.”
For more information, visit whalingmuseum.org.