The 2023 Moby-Dick Marathon, Put On by the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Part I
Chapter 1: Moby-Dick
Talk to me long enough, and I'll bring up the subject of whales. I'm awed by the fact that the largest animal that has ever existed (the blue whale) exists today; that they live in the sea but breathe air; that the can hold their breath for 40 minutes, sometimes longer; that they swim for great lengths to feed and rest; and other facts that don't seem possible. It would surprise people a little that I hadn't read Moby-Dick, the epic American novel by Herman Melville.
Wondering how long the pandemic restrictions were going to last, at the end of 2020, I signed up for a course from the University of Toronto's Continuing Studies department as a way to motivate me to read it, and it would take place during the early months of 2021. I couldn't keep up with the assigned readings, and to this day I don't know what kind of credit I got for the course, but I finished the book. The edition I read, the Norton Critical Edition, was love at first sight. The footnotes (not endnotes!) were descriptive without being overly lengthy, pointing out biblical references I may not have caught (having not grown up in a religious family) and Shakespearean references that I had a chance of catching (whatever I would have read in high school), some quotations and facts that were flat out made up by Melville, and other words and terms that may have fallen out of fashion. It's a dense book, which some have called encyclopaedic, and that, not the length of the book is why it took me most of that year to finish.
I had known about the New Bedford Whaling Museum from a 2016 trip to Boston, and therefore knew about its yearly Moby-Dick Reading Marathon. I recorded a virtual reading marathon in the late months of 2021, reading chapter 92, titled "Ambergris" (the pronunciation of which I had to look up, and was disappointed to learn it wasn't the way French-speakers would have pronounced it). I did at least 6 takes, stopping each time I faltered, ultimately going with a take that had a minor slip in the end.
Emboldened by the removal of all pandemic restrictions and travel (minus the required vaccination, which I had covered), I signed up to be a reader at the in-person marathon in January 2023. At the very last minute, after looking up hotel rates and flight prices, I decided to accept. The only thing I was nervous about was the transportation between Boston and New Bedford, which had uncertainties due to the fact that I couldn't buy a ticket for a specific time and date. That would ultimately cause the chaos I feared.
Chapter 2: The Bus Schedule
I didn't look carefully at the special holiday-related cancellations before deciding which bus to take. The plan was to fly in on Thursday, work from the Boston HQ of the company I work for in Friday, and take a bus later that evening, settle into the hotel, then wake up refreshed for the proceedings at the museum. Working in the office was an absolute blast. We had a few more crises than I thought we would, and while I worried that we would take too much of the advantage for a social occasion, we were almost all business throughout (very pleasantly and productively so). I don't know if more gets done in person, but we learn more about each other that way, and it seemed a bit easier to figure things out together that way. I still think we do quite well with a spread out team, but one of the reasons I moved to Toronto is that I could do work trips like this, and I was brimming with joy the whole evening, despite how it played out as far as trip-planning was concerned.
What I hadn't internalized was that there was no 7 PM trip to New Bedford from Boston on that particular Friday due to the holiday schedule. There was, evidently, a 5:30 PM one, but I was blissfully eating nachos in the middle of South Station at the time. Not getting to New Bedford meant I couldn't make it for the first night of my hotel stay there. My hurried decision was to book another night at the Boston hotel I was staying at and, once I got back there, plead my case to cancel my New Bedford hotel room. After calling the hotel customer service line, and only explaining what happened, the people on the end of the line connected the dots themselves and looked to see if I could cancel despite the expired cancellation deadline. It took about over an hour of talking to at least 3 representatives, my having to call a second line (not to mention be subjected to a sales pitch on a resort getaway), to ultimately be granted, as a "one-time courtesy" (a line I know in my own field), a cancellation and rebooking. Having gotten that, and believing that I could catch a 7 AM bus the next morning, I went to bed early. I woke up at 5 AM the next morning, a Saturday, and made it with a lot of time before my 7 AM bus time only to find out that…
Chapter 3: The Uber Ride
…I had been looking at the weekday schedule. There were no scheduled bus trips on Saturdays not to mention no return bus trips on the coming Sunday. (Normally there were, but again, holiday schedule.) Just as I was contemplating cancelling the New Bedford portion of my trip did it turn out that another guy, a 72-year-old man from Japan, was also planning on going to Fairhaven (the last stop of the route) on that same trip. He suggested taking a taxi, and at first I dismissed it, but then thought "OK, how much would it cost?" So I looked it up, and it would be $77 USD. I thought: "You know what? That would be worth it." The Japanese fellow asked if he could come with me, and I couldn't think of a reason why not.
His English was pretty good, maybe a little halting, but we always got to understanding each other. Almost right away he asked to add him on Facebook. I couldn't think of a reason why not. We were about to share an hour-long ride together. The Uber driver asked if he could gas before going, and I had no problem with that. The Japanese fellow and I each got snacks, though we probably should have thought that through a little, since he wasn't too pleased about the crumbs we left. He won't see the tip he got, or the five-star rating I gave him (Uber only sends drivers averages), but he seemed pretty OK with it. The Japanese fellow offered to pay his share, and I took whatever he offered (it was more than half; I don't know if he knew I was just happy to get to New Bedford on time). He was on a day trip to Fairhaven, so I don't know how he got back. He seemed pretty resourceful to me, with his iPad mini always on and taking phone calls during the trip and looking up stuff as we went. I'm not too worried about him.
Chapter 4: The Reading
I couldn't check into he hotel until 1 PM, but left my suitcase there until I could. I actually made it to the museum at the time I had planned to arrive. I spent the morning listening to Stump the Scholars, half hoping my question would come up, half hoping it wouldn't. It didn't. The morning and afternoon went by pretty fast, with a quick meal at the Quahog Republic Tavern (a giant fish sandwich), and watched a bit of the main event, where dignitaries read from the first few chapters in front of an audience in the large room with the whaling ship. It was quite the scene for me, almost everybody looking down at their own copy of Moby-Dick, me included. Along with a couple of other things, my passport and my well-read copy of the book were the only two things I couldn't by. (It wouldn't be the same if I had to get a new copy of my own while in New Bedford.) There are a few photographs of me somewhere, with my trees-and-a-mountain-on-a-whale pin that someone, the only person who knows the reasons why I love whales that I don't talk about, bought me, reading Moby-Dick along with dozens of others. What a feeling!
My time to read, 3:30 PM, was going to be later than planned, because I had correctly sensed that the marathon was a bit behind time-wise. So I grabbed a coffee, which wasn't the smoothest move, because I forgot it can sometimes make my face break out. I powered through those feelings and kept along with the other readers until it was my time. I had practiced beforehand, not knowing exactly which section I'd read from, but knowing I had exactly 5 minutes. I had correctly guessed that I would read from the section introducing Captain Bildad, though, thankfully, it wasn't the hardest parts of that section that had the initial dialogue, where dost and thou were thrown around with wild, reckless, Quaker abandon. (Melville, though Ishmael, even makes fun of Quakers for doing that.) I had stage fright all day, and worried about pretty much all aspects, including being tall and having to adjust the microphone. I saw some people before me do it, so I knew it was possible. Just like the practice session, the 5 minutes went by like a flash. After hating every minute of the lead-up, I loved every second of reading it. It helped to know that hardly anybody would be looking at me, and the laughter would be at the content, and not the delivery.
I have a grin on my face from ear to ear. I already know that I want to do it again, and knowing what I know about the bus schedule, I'll make either fewer mistakes or different mistakes next time. I'll even practice a bit more seriously, this time conceding that this was going to be my first time and that no matter what, I'd want to improve from my previous performance. When it comes around again, I'll sign up for the lottery and if invited to read, I wouldn't hesitate to say Yes.
Read Part 2 now.