Call them Ishmael — all 45 of them — or, better yet, call them amateur whalers with senior essays due in a week. Call it procrastination or one of hundreds of crackpot ideas hatched in a freshman suite in Bingham Hall. Or call it the oral literary tradition rekindled by a fire in the Trumbull College Fellows’ Lounge.
But, in the name of Moby’s blubber, don’t call it “silliness.”
For the two seniors who organized it, this weekend’s marathon reading of “Moby-Dick” was a labor of the profoundest love for Melville’s mega-novel. Beginning at 10 a.m. Sunday and ending at 4 a.m. Monday, the 18-hour event drew roughly three dozen readers, who recited the book’s 135 chapters to a crowd that ranged from one to a peak of 15 at 1:30 in the morning.
Co-coordinator Curtis Ellis ’02, speaking almost exclusively in book review-style sound bites, said he and freshman-year roommate Ian Cheney ’02 allotted two minutes per page for the “whale’s tale on a whale’s scale.”
They also allotted a six-pack of Samuel Adams’ Boston Ale, a tray of brownies, some pizza from Yorkside, and one package of Shaw’s Hearth Glow fake fire logs.
At 11 o’clock at night, Simon Beins ’03 began Chapter 91: “The Pequod Meets the Rose Bud.” A portrait of George Washington sat opposite the crackling artificial wood. Ellis said that a maintenance worker needed to specially clean the chimney and incinerate a Kleenex before the reading to make sure there was no fire hazard.
The chapter dealt in great detail with valuable oil being extracted from a whale other than the infamous Moby-Dick. Beins elected, as did a number of others, to read different characters in different voices, but he found himself struggling with the occasional dialogue of a French sailor.
“You got f—ed with this chapter,” one of the three spectators said. Otherwise, the readings proceeded largely without interruption. Despite his lengthy portion, Beins said he still preferred an earlier chapter called “The Crotch,” adding that the principal difficulty with the exercise is that it’s “so damn easy to get fumbled with the words.”
Though this was the first known “Moby-Dick” extravaganza on the Yale campus, a number of similar readings take place annually throughout former New England whaling towns, with the most notable, according to Ellis, being a widely attended event in New Bedford, Mass.
Asked why he and Cheney decided to initiate what they hope will become a Yale tradition, Ellis said he thinks “anything as classic as whaling 150 years ago deserves to have the quality of a storytelling experience.” Ellis added that he was hoping to get a job in the whaling industry if his senior history thesis falls through.
Ellis persisted, however, in stating that the project, while self-aware in its relative novelty, was a serious endeavor and not mere “silliness and fun.” One reader, Ellis said, came dressed in a bathrobe and told him it was one of the highlights of his time at Yale. Many others, he added, fell in love with the book and all of its near endless harpooning detail.
And ultimately, the reading of this “epic voyage where the reader feels fully on board the whale-ship proved” was also a freshman dream realized, an event that two seniors a month short of graduation thought up when they were just beginning their first year at Yale.
“We’ve only got so many opportunities to be absurd left,” he said, hours before returning to an essay and a deadline. “This is one of the ones we wanted to embrace before leaving.”