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Test your attention span at the ‘Moby-Dick’ Marathon

Author Nathaniel Philbrick was the first reader at last year’s “Moby-Dick” Marathon in New Bedford.
Author Nathaniel Philbrick was the first reader at last year’s “Moby-Dick” Marathon in New Bedford.New Bedford Whaling Museum

Some might call it the literary equivalent of binge watching.

The annual “Moby-Dick” Marathon at the New Bedford Whaling Museum draws people from around the region as Herman Melville’s 1851 novel is read aloud, word for word, by more than 100 eager readers, from teenagers to octogenarians. It’s a communal gathering at once sacred and theatrical: For many, especially those who struggled to get through the book as required reading, Melville’s tale and colorful prose may genuinely be heard anew; for others, just sitting among so many willing listeners in the city that inspired this literary masterpiece is the perfect antidote to holiday stress and social media noise.

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The New Bedford Whaling Museum is worth a trip any time of the year, but the 21st annual “Moby-Dick” Marathon, running Jan. 7-8, is a cultural event unlike any other. Since 1995, the Museum has commemorated the anniversary of Melville’s 1841 departure from the Port of New Bedford and Fairhaven aboard the whaleship Acushnet, an experience that 10 years later resulted in the publication of “Moby-Dick.” But while those early years attracted Melville aficionados and local supporters, it’s become a much-anticipated and welcoming mid-winter tradition that includes, besides the marathon, talks by Melville scholars, book signings, exhibits, and more.

The free public activities begin Jan. 7 with a 10 a.m. children’s “Moby-Dick” Marathon. Kids of all ages read a section of an abridged version of the book by Classic Starts. Adults who fret about cultural illiteracy and YouTube-decimated attention spans should check out the enthused and engaged kids reading Melville. The event continues until everyone who wants to has an opportunity to read.

At noon, the main marathon begins. The museum usually engages a “celebrity” to kick off the event; last year, “In the Heart of the Sea” author Nathaniel Philbrick read what many consider the most famous opening line in American literature, “Call me Ishmael.” This year, the honor goes to Melville’s great-great-grandson, Peter Gansevoort Whittemore. For the next 25 hours, more than 100 volunteers will read a short passage from the novel. The reading slots were claimed long ago; anyone interested in reading next year should sign up early.

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The reading begins in the museum’s Bourne Building among the sails, lines, and whaling tools of the world’s largest whaleship model. The event later moves to Seamen’s Bethel for the chapter on Father Mapple’s rousing sermon. Melville attended a service there shortly before he shipped out; the chaplain, the Rev. Enoch Mudge, was the model for Father Mapple. Seats in the chapel are limited, so attendance is determined by a raffle drawing. Otherwise, guests can watch a live-stream of the sermon in the museum’s theater.

After the Bethel, readings continue in the Harbor View Gallery with the exception of Chapter 40, “Forecastle-Midnight,” which will be staged by New Bedford-based theater troupe Culture Park inside the museum’s Cook Memorial Theater. From 3-7 p.m., there’s an ancillary reading of playwright Tiago Patricio’s abridged version of “Moby-Dick” in Portuguese. During the marathon, excerpts will be read in, among other languages, Japanese, Italian, German, Spanish, and French, followed by that same passage in English, giving literal voice to the universality of this great American novel.

Another highlight of the event is the chowder break at 5 p.m., with local restaurants providing the New England staple to sustain participants as night falls. The remainder of the book is read nonstop in Harbor View Gallery with 180-degree views of the fishing fleets and other vessels lining New Bedford Harbor.

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The hardy souls — usually 30 or so — who last though all 136 chapters of Melville’s epic will receive a prize when the marathon comes to a close to much applause around 1 p.m. on Sunday.

For those who head to New Bedford, there’s metered parking downtown and in several garages, as well as plenty of cafes and restaurants. The entire marathon will be broadcast via live-stream throughout the museum and online.

For more information go to www.whalingmuseum.org.


Loren King can be reached at loren.king@comcast.net.