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Melville on the Web: Moby Dick Big Read

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Those of us who have always felt guilty about never being able to read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, perhaps the most classic of classic American novels, from cover to cover and excused that failure by lamenting its excessive length and those endless digressions on whales and whaling, now have a wonderful opportunity to remedy that situation. Check out the Moby Dick Big Read website, and we can now have the book read to us a chapter a day, each day a different reader some well known household names, some of lesser note.

Moby Dick Big Read is the brainchild of artist Angela Cockayne and writer Philip Hoare who were curators of a whale symposium and exhibition at Peninsula Arts a contemporary art space housed at Plymouth University. As the website explains, “inspired by their mutual obsession with Moby Dick and with the overarching subject of the whale, they invited artists, writers, musicians, scientists and academics to respond to the theme.” A three day symposium, it turns out was not enough to satisfy the enthusiasm generated, so fast forward to September 16, 2012, and the beginning of the Big Read project.

Hoare and Cockayne have assembled 135 celebrities from a variety of fields each to read one chapter of the novel a day for 135 days. Each episode is available on the website and can be downloaded from there or subscribed to at iTunes. Chapter one is read by Tilda Swinton, and other readers up to now include Simon Callow, Stephen Fry, Chad Harbaugh, Mama Tokus, and Fran King. Length of episode of course depends on the length of the particular chapter, but each of the readings released to date (22 chapters as of this writing) is extremely well done and leaves the reader eager for the next release.

Each chapter is accompanied by a visual contribution by an artist. These are not necessarily illustrations of anything in the chapter, but rather interpretive works based on the artist’s imaginative connection with material of the novel. Thus for example, take a look at Matthew Benedict’s triptych for “Merry Christmas,” chapter 22, “Moby Dick at Breakfast,” Oliver Clegg’s silk screen eye chart, “The Question is Not What U Look at But What You See” illustrating chapter seven, “The Chapel, or Boyd Webb’s 1984 suckling man “Nourishment” which is attached to the fifth chapter “Breakfast.”

For those who have never read the book and for those who have read it once or even more than once, Moby Dick Big Read is an opportunity not to be missed. Who knows, with a positive response and a little luck, what other blockbuster classics–Ulysses (after all, it does get read on Bloomsday), Remembrance of Things Past (my own bête noire), War and Peace–might await their own big reads.

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