Saturday, November 17, 2012

Saturday Afternoon in Soho: "Moby-Dick" Marathon Reading at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe

After teaching our business communications class this morning at FIT, we took the D train down to Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in Soho to see part of this weekend's Marathon Reading of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, a truly amazing event organized by Amanda Bullock and Polly Bresnick.
We arrived today somewhere around chapter 41 and stayed for about six more chapters. To be honest, we've never read the complete novel. As a teenager, we read an abridged version for kids, and after a January 1979 interview for a teaching job at Andover during which we got to observe a brilliant English teacher discussing Moby Dick in a class of smart prep school students, we decided to read the novel in full but never made it through completely; we were teaching at Kingsborough Community College and Brooklyn College and our first book of short stories was about to come out and it was hard to concentrate. (We know. We know.)
We did listen to the unabridged Moby Dick on an audiobook, about a zillion cassette tapes we borrowed from the Gainesville Public Library 21 years ago, when we were in our first semester of law school at the University of Florida and were badly in need of some literature but could not bear to do any more reading after our hours and hours of reading casebooks, hornbooks, Black's Law Dictionary, and study aids.
According to our diary, on Saturday, November 2, 1991, we went to the downtown library,
where I exchanged my Borges and Isherwood tapes for a 22-hour monster, the unabridged Moby Dick. I’ve never fully read Melville’s masterpiece, I’m embarrassed to say, but I’m not certain I can get through the tapes, either
At 3 p.m. the next afternoon, Sunday, November 3, 1991, we wrote:
Last evening, before I fell asleep, I listened to the first two of 15 cassettes of Moby Dick. Why did I never read this book before? It’s amazing how modern Melville’s story is, and how clearly and skillfully told. As hard as it might be to fit in the hours required to listen to the entire novel in two weeks – when the tape is due – I’m going to try. It’s a better break from law school than TV.
And at 9 p.m. that night:
I’ll be snuggling up in bed early with my Moby Dick tapes. I read – Freudian slip – I listened to another tape earlier: Ishmael and Queegqueg have shipped out on the Pequod but Captain Ahab hasn’t appeared yet.
And, afraid I would not be able to finish law school, we continued:
I think joining the Peace Corps and going to Europe might be an adventure like whaling. I’d prefer to stay in Gainesville, but I don’t know that I’ll have that choice.
The next day, Monday, November 4, we note:
Last night’s tape of Moby Dick contained Melville’s detailed explanations about the different kinds of whales. As Robin Cisne, the woman in Ithaca, wrote me, to her, Moby Dick is an experimental novel.
On Tuesday, November 4, 1991:
I listened to a little Moby Dick last night and was most impressed with Melville’s tour de force on the scary connotations of whiteness.
And on Thursday, November 6:
Before I fell asleep, I listened to another few chapters of Moby Dick; at times I find Melville’s words so euphonious that I forget to listen for meaning as I concentrate on their sound.
On Sunday, November 10, 1991, we note that we've been missing parts of the audiobook:
I listened to more of Moby Dick. Melville’s little essays on every aspect of whaling and things related to it are some of the best parts of the novel. Although some nights I’ve fallen asleep with a tape still running, I’ve got a feel for the novel, and I feel ashamed I never read it. But then, I’ve got a lot to learn.
The nest day, November 11, was Veterans Day, a rare day off from law school. At 8 p.m., we wrote:
At 4 PM I took a drive, listening to Moby Dick, getting excited as Old Ahab stalks the white whale (I’m on side two of 14 tapes of 15).
And then we write again, unable to sleep, at 11 PM:
Tired as I was, I’m still awake. I listened to the end of Moby Dick, an exciting conclusion to a brilliant book. Someday I’ll have to take the time to read it at my leisure, but I’m glad I listened to all 21½ hours of it. Such a masterpiece, yet when Melville published it, he was ignored. The man who wrote this and Billy Budd (not published till long after he died), Benito Cereno and other great books spent the last twenty years of his life as a customs agent in New York City. If that was Melville’s treatment, why should I – whose talent is a tiny fraction of his – expect anything better?
And the last diary entry to mention the novel (all of this is our boring book account of being a 1L at UF, First Fall in Gainesville, comes on Thursday, November 14, 1991:
Back home for lunch, I spent an hour revising the first part of my memo. Before returning to campus, I dropped off the Moby Dick tape at the public library after detouring around the downtown street that was blocked off for the satellite dish trucks from Orlando and Tampa TV stations’ news departments. I guess they’re expecting the grand jury will hand down an indictment in the student murders. [the notorious horrific crime of the previous fall, something that would probably have fascinated Melville]
Today's terrific event was a welcome reintroduction to Melville's masterpiece, though not the first Moby Dick marathon reading we attended part of. Three years ago, in November 2009, when we were teaching Cold War Literature at City College, the English Department's faculty and students did a complete reading in the department lounge, and we stayed for an hour or two.
More coming . . .

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