The experimental artist Peter Fischli once observed, “There’s certainly a subversive pleasure in occupying yourself with something for an unreasonable length of time.” In this same spirit, David Dowling takes it upon himself to attend and report on the all-consuming annual Moby-Dick Marathon reading at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
The twenty-five-hour nonstop reading of Melville’s titanic epic has inspired this fresh look at Moby-Dick in light of its most devoted followers at the moment of their high holy day, January 3, 2009. With some trepidation, Dowling joined the ranks of the Melvillians, among the world’s most obsessive literary aficionados, to participate in the event for its full length, from “Call Me Ishmael” to the destruction of the Pequod. Dowling not only survived to tell his tale, but does so with erudition, humor, and a keen sense for the passions of his fellow whalers.
The obsession of participants at the marathon reading is startling, providing evidence of Ishmael’s remark that “all men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.” Dowling organizes his savvy analysis of the novel from its romantic departure to its sledge-hammering seas, detailing the culture of the top brass to the common crew and scrutinizing the inscrutable in and through Melville’s great novel.
Chasing the White Whale offers a case study of the reading as a barometer of how Melville lives today among his most passionate and enthusiastic disciples, who include waterfront workers, professors, naval officers, tattooed teens, and even a member of Congress. Dowling unearths Moby-Dick’s central role in these lives, and by going within the local culture he explains how the novel could have developed such an ardent following and ubiquitous presence in popular culture within our technology-obsessed, quick-fix contemporary world.