A Truly Epic Event– Or– A Whale of a Tale

A few weeks ago our school held a Moby Dick Read-a-Thon. Twenty-one  and a half hours of reading Moby Dick – out loud, in turns—to air live on the school radio station and be recorded for all posterity. Some may ask: Why?!?   And I say:   For the same reason anyone climbs Everest—because it’s gosh-darn HUMONGOUS!

moby3 (design by Andrew Ravan with inspiration from Mark Hilt)

At Harvard-Westlake Upper School, English teachers have what is called Teachers’ Choice, where teachers can select their own texts to teach during second semester. Choices have ranged from Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides to Ellison’s The Invisible Man. Two of our teachers, Drs. Malina Mamigonian and Charles Berezin, have taught Herman Melville’s Moby Dick for the past 2 years.  This is the second voyage on the good ship Pequod, and the first that I took part in. To say that it was transformative sounds as if I were exercising hyperbole (as my son’s third grade teacher would say) but… not so. It was a truly moving experience.

Arrangements started several weeks before, with the different sections of classes gathering after school in the library to brainstorm on decorations, scheduling, readers, food, and other such details. Scheduling such an event is perhaps the trickiest part, but as this is a purely voluntary event, and students can drop in and out, signing up to read just one chapter if that’s all they can manage, it all fell into place. There was a small core of dedicated leaders and a larger crew of helpers. Four sections of Juniors read Moby Dick in their English classes, but the event was open to anyone in the Harvard-Westlake Community.

A spreadsheet was created dividing the work chapter by chapter, all 137 chapters (and Epilog) broken down by estimated reading times.  Students and other community members signed up for different chapters, sometimes signing up with friends to share the longer chapters.  Students would be able to come and go except during the 11:00 pm – 6:00 am lockdown for those sleeping over in the library.

A chowder dinner was provided, featuring both fish and vegetable chowder and biscuits, with sandwiches and cupcakes for all-night snacking. Coffee was provided by (who else?) Starbucks.  Students planning on staying over came prepared with sleeping bags and pajamas (the Totoro Onesie was a big hit this year—very cute!).  Student designed t-shirts were made available through Customink.com.

Decorations were anchored by the Podium As Prow/Pulpit creation designed by the head of our Performing Arts department, Rees Pugh (a wizard at all stagecraft). The inspiration came from the highly decorated pulpit at the shorefront church led by Father Mapple as described in Chapter 8.   Additional atmospheric touches came from the stage lighting: blue-violet LED lights scattered about the reading area were offset by a shimmering indigo light slowly rotating like the waves of the deep blue sea. Battery operated tea lights lent their flickering ‘candlelight’ to the cozy atmosphere. One student created a continuous loop of ocean views and whale images accompanied by sounds of wind and wave and whales which was projected in the area where students set up their sleeping bags. Brilliantly done.

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The reading started promptly at 4:00 pm Thursday April 17, and continued non-stop until 1:37 pm Friday April 18. I had listened to the Moby Dick audiobook (unabridged, of course) in preparation for this event, and had just finished the entire thing a few days prior to launch. “Everyone Knows” that Moby Dick is an American Treasure, an Icon, but mostly a Really Really Long Book, and that included me, but I’d never read it before. I was in for a surprise. In addition to being a wonderfully crafted tale of obsession and adventure, Moby Dick is surprisingly funny. Some of our student readers really went to town with the various characters’ accents and comedic interactions, and we had many truly laugh-out-loud moments. Why is this such a deep dark secret?

There were also moments of rapt attention when the reader was engrossed by the text and the audience was in the grip of the spell cast by Melville’s language. I found that when I read one particularly dramatic chapter, as Starbuck is wondering whether it would be better to commit the sin of  killing Captain Ahab in his sleep, or to hold back and likely see the whole ship of 30 men lost, that I was caught up in the spell myself. It took me several minutes after leaving the podium for the next reader that I was fully myself again.

It was a thrill seeing others have this same experience, knowing that students really enjoyed their time in the spotlight, and knowing that this whole event is only successful – like a whaling voyage, in fact—with the combined coordinated efforts of a dedicated team. While the readers continued one after the other, students, faculty and administration came and went, jumped in to read a chapter and waved goodbye, it seemed every different element of the school was represented by someone that night. Some students even brought henna tattoo kits, and as the night progressed proceeded to decorate a goodly percentage of participants with so many tattoos as to out-Queequeg Queequeg.

We were thinking about what other novel would work as well, if there was interest in moving to a different author in the future, and frankly I can’t think of one that would provide such a rich experience. The very act of reading Moby Dick out loud is in itself a truly epic event. To have 21+ hours’ worth of such beautiful language read aloud, with its astonishing imagery, star-crossed characters and drop-dead adventure on the high seas—this really is the epitome of Great Literature. This is epic. This is Grand on a Grand scale. This is truly a Whale of a Tale.

Tips for next time: provide a whiteboard for announcements :  you can’t break into the reading to tell everyone the food’s ready or Lockdown is in effect.  Provide coffee, cocoa, and food near the reading location, rather than in a different room or building: keeping the event contained creates a greater sense of community. Order smaller amounts of chowder as it’s not best served all night long. Small sandwiches are a better bet for continuous nibbling. It would be possible to have students collect sponsors – per chapter or per minute—and include a fund-raising element, perhaps to benefit whale preservation or marine ecology.

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Over to you:

Have you experienced your own version of a Read-a-Thon or sleepover event in your library? What has worked well? What different books or authors have you explored in this way? Let us know in the comments.

5 thoughts on “A Truly Epic Event– Or– A Whale of a Tale

  1. I love this idea! I sent this to my English department, and we have been discussing books that would work in this way. Also, it might be a great activity for our senior book club! Thanks for the inspiration…

    • Thanks, Claire! it was so much fun. There were so many ways to play with the idea of a marathon, and to explore the world of whalers and sailors.

  2. Thanks, Claire! it was so much fun. There were so many ways to play with the idea of a marathon, and to explore the world of whalers and sailors.

  3. Shannon, this is such a fantastic, cool, completely over the top in the best-possible-way, idea. I love it. I’m sending it on to my English department now as well (and to the librarians at nearby Albany Academy, Herman’s Alma Mater!). Pondering what other books might work for this…I’ll talk with my English colleagues and get back with you.

  4. Hey there Shannon. This is so great! I had a medical emergency just prior to your writing this fantastic post, and I’m just now catching up to last spring’s reading. I would love to dive into Moby Dick as you’ve described, at Pacific Ridge. Thanks so much for the detailed, enthusiastic write-up. I can’t wait!

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