January 08, 2007

Mr Quill, Mr Southworth, & Ms Murphy inside the Boston Globe, pretending an indifference to Melville's tomb.

Three of my bosom friends were quoted in the paper at an event at which many of us have previously made appearances, often for the full duration. Mr. Quill claims he was "misrepresented." (obviously, he may have been among the truest enthusiasts there - unless you read his famous tone into the quote.)

Ahab's apostles

Reeled in by the writing in 'Moby-Dick,' devoted fans give a whale of a reading

NEW BEDFORD -- Call them Melville diehards.

They are the ragtag group of " Moby-Dick " enthusiasts who gather each year in the shadow of a whale's skeleton to read for at least 24 hours about the elusive prey of Captain Ahab. The experience, they say, is almost spiritual.

They are young graduate students and aging retirees, descendants of whalers -- some are even descendants of the author -- or they have merely fallen in love with a text that has been called one of the most dense and quixotic of American literature.

When the annual read-a-thon at the New Bedford Whaling Museum started at noon Wednesday, some 400 had showed up for the famous opening line, "Call me Ishmael." By 1 p.m. yesterday, the crowd had thinned to just dozens . They took turns reading aloud, drank grog, ate chowder, and celebrated the anniversary of Herman Melville's departure from the city more than 160 years ago on the whaler Acushnet, a voyage thought to have formed ideas for his most enduring book.

"There are very well-educated people who did not love it in high school," said Lee Heald , the museum's vice president for education. "But here's the deal: 19th -century literature is so gorgeous. The way to read 'Moby-Dick' is to hear it aloud. It's two stories. It's a great maritime narrative, but it's also a story of good and bad and dark and light."

Not all those in attendance were drawn to the event by the text's finer points, however.

"I think it was just the bragging rights that brought us," said James Quill , 24, who grew up in Concord. This year's event went on for 25 hours, trying some of the most ardent fans, who went home to nap and returned later.

Quill and his two companions, Maralena Murphy , 24, and Darren Southworth , 25, were determined to stay until the last word was uttered. Southworth, who said he has avoided the book "like the plague" since he forced himself to finish it in high school, acknowledged that he was riveted when he heard the expressive readers recite the text.

"It makes a world of difference," he said.

The dramatic reading s were not enough to occupy his attention through the night, though. At one point, Southworth crocheted to keep himself awake. Murphy knitted. "I finished a glove," she said proudly.

The marathon began 11 years ago, when museum volunteer Irwin Marks suggested an event that would commemorate Melville's departure from New Bedford on Jan. 3, 1841. Hundreds of readers have signed up since then to take on a chapter of the 400 plus-page book, including professors, high school students, and high-profile politicians such as US Representative Barney Frank .

This year, the coveted first chapter was read by one of Melville's descendants, a Cohasset carpenter named Peter Whittemore , who recalled playing with the author's spectacles as a child.

"My maternal grandmother was his granddaughter," he said, "so I sat on the lap of the lady who sat on [Melville's] lap."

He said he felt no pressure reading his great-great-grandfather's words, even the renowned first line. "It feels like it's in my blood," Whittemore said. "I start reading and I get caught up."

Some, in their nervousness, may stumble over the words. Others, inspired by the tale, wow the spectators with their fine, clear diction.

"That's what I call good reading," murmured one spectator listening to Celeste Bernardo , 43, confidently describe Ahab's final chase of the whale.

But it is the book's thrilling last chapter, when Ahab goes down with his ship, that rattles the most experienced reader. Dana Westover , a sound technician who read the final chapter yesterday, chastised himself for using the wrong voice to recite the final speech by Starbucks, the ship's first mate.

"I read it in Ahab's voice," he said, shaking his head. "I should have known better. Well, whatever. It was fun."

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.

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