I blogged here from May 2012 until early 2013, writing mostly about books and culture. My book reviews are here. From September 2012 to January 2013 I wrote a weekly series about reading the classic American novel Moby-Dick with the Moby-Dick Big Read project.

You can get in touch with me by email at eva.stalker (at) gmail (dot) com or on Twitter: @evastalker.

the third person

Finally I sit down and write in my notebook that when he calls me either he will then come to me, or he will not and I will be angry, and so I will have either him or my own anger, and this might be all right, since anger is always a great comfort, as I found with my husband. And then I go on to write, in the third person and the past tense, that clearly she always needed to have a love even if it was a complicated love.

From Story by Lydia Davis from her first collection Break It Down (1986).

The Moby-Dick Big Read: Chapter 135 and The Epilogue

The twentieth and final weekly post on reading Herman Melville’s classic American novel a chapter a day with the Moby-Dick Big Read daily podcast.


Storyboard sketch by Stephen Grimes, the Art Director for John Huston’s 1956 film adaptation of Moby-Dick.

Yesterday, the Moby-Dick Big Read uploaded the final chapter of the book. This morning we were given the Epilogue, and all of a sudden we had finished reading Melville’s wonderful, perplexing, thrilling, and beautiful book.

The Big Read has been a fantastic success, clocking up over a million downloads so far and receiving media coverage across the globe.  Since news of the project caught my imagination back in September 2012, I have been posting weekly about my experience of reading the novel with the Big Read’s recordings.

Over the past five months my posts have grown into something like a personal travelogue of my adventure through my first reading of Moby-Dick. I was also pleased that it turned out to be a handy guide for other Big Read listeners, especially those who were curious to know more about the identity of each reader.

I wrote my posts in the ready, untidy spirit of a keen reader encountering the book for the first time, determined not to worry too much about how I might come across, or what mistakes I might make.  I wrote in the hope that this approach would at least chime with the irreverent, democratic nature of Melville’s book and the Big Read itself. It has been a wonderful experience.

The Readings

Note: Spoilers! If you have not yet read the ending of Moby-Dick, be aware that I discuss parts of it below.

Chapter 135: The Chase – Third Day, Read by James Naughtie. Artist: Stephen Grimes

BBC broadcaster Naughtie lends his Scottish accent to the final chapter of the book. The reading clocks in at nearly 33 minutes. What a remarkable piece of writing.

As with my posts about the first two days of the three-day chase that closes the novel, I don’t want to spend too much time analysing everything that went on here, because my own experience this time round wasn’t like that. I was aware on a basic level that there were a lot of statements and actions that tied into the key themes of the novel, and in awe of Melville’s mastery of action and suspense in this final stretch, such that even though he effectively set out the fate of the Pequod’s crew long ago in Chapter 41 (quoted below), I was still swept along by the narrative, still urging the men to deflect Ahab from his purpose.

Here, then, was this grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job’s whale round the world, at the head of a crew, too, chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals—morally enfeebled also, by the incompetence of mere unaided virtue or right-mindedness in Starbuck, the invulnerable jollity of indifference and recklessness in Stubb, and the pervading mediocrity in Flask. Such a crew, so officered, seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him to his monomaniac revenge.

I was also waiting to see what would happen with Fedallah, and how his strange prophecy would come true (that after death he would appear before Ahab again before the captain could die). I had thought to myself ‘oh, so we’ll see him dead at one point’ but boy, did we see him dead!

The moment when the Pequod sinks and the sea-bird is dragged down with it was almost hallucinogenic. It has burnt itself into my imagination like some key iconography I had known and forgotten, rather than a scene I have just read for the first time. Incredible.

Chapter 130: The Epilogue, Read by Mary Oliver. Artist: Gary Hill

The recordings began with Tilda Swinton asserting Call me Ishmael and end with another woman’s voice, this time esteemed American poet Mary Oliver, delivering us our narrator’s final segment. It is a short piece, not a page long. We learn where Ishmael has been in the scenes he has just narrated at such a distance, and how he was the lone survivor of the Pequod. The final line seemed beautifully judged, resonating with the great isolation of the men aboard the ship throughout the book, and of American individualism, and the solitary soul that each of us has. I won’t quote it here – to read it again, click here.

I’d urge you to check out the artist contribution to this chapter, a video titled Isolation Tank by Gary Hill. It is superb, perhaps especially good when you have the ending of the book in mind. Once you have watched it, learn more about it here (I recommend you watch it before you read about it).

The Epilogue is headed with the following quote which did not appear in the recording:

‘And I only am escaped alone to tell thee’ – Job

Job is referenced throughout the novel (including in the excerpt from Chapter 41 I quoted above) and is clearly a key text for Moby-Dick. I haven’t fully explored this yet, but what it did speak to for me is the curious (and much-discussed) nature of ‘Ishmael’ as a narrator. The narration of Moby-Dick is rather odd and slippery. Often the entity that told us Call me Ishmael seems to see things ‘Ishmael’ could not have seen and know things he could not have known.

Interestingly, in the Biblical story of Job, four different messengers say the line at the top of the Epilogue. They each say it to Job, who is being tormented by illness and misfortune as a test from God. That number agrees with the four broad categories of point of view in Moby-Dick: first person where we are certain it is Ishmael, a more distant first person that seems to be Ishmael, third person, and the chapters written as though they were a play. What’s also interesting is, as Prof. Patell points out, if Ishmael is the messenger, we must ask ourselves: who is Job?

The Delbanco introduction in my copy of the book also describes how Ishmael starts off as a rather fixed character, full of opinions and views borrowed from others, until the experience of loving Queequeg broadens his mind and seems to dissipate him into the world, such that as the figure of Ahab assumes primacy towards the end of the novel Ishmael is barely there. The Epilogue brings him back in full, first-person voice –  and it is set in italics in a good print version, which sets it visually apart from all other parargraphs of prose in the book. My impression of this is that it seems to set apart a new Ishmael, united as one mind again but as a markedly different person than he was in the Loomings of Chapter 1.

The Voice Of Doom (a.k.a. Peter Donaldson, the lovely man who introduces each chapter of the Big Read)

It occurred to me that I hadn’t yet written about a key voice we have been hearing all through the Big Read: Peter Donaldson, that pleasant voice you hear intoning Moby-Dick or The Whale, by Herman Melville plus the chapter number and title at the beginning of each recording.

When I Googled him, I found out that he is a retired Chief Announcer of the BBC. The ‘Voice of Doom’ bit comes from the fact that in the 1970s the UK Government decided to record a message that would play over the radio in the event of nuclear war. They chose Donaldson to make the recording. When the press found out, he was dubbed the ‘Voice of Doom’. Rather fitting for a novel as dark as Moby-Dick, don’t you think?

The BBC has made an excellent little short segment about some of the people behind voice announcements, which you can see on YouTube. This is where I found out about Peter Donaldson. Zeb Soanes, who read Chapter 101 of the Big Read, is also featured. And you get to hear a wee bit of that nuclear war announcement (known as the Four Minute Warning).

The First Pursuit: On Reading Moby-Dick

I have a personal to-do list connected to the novel now that I have finished reading it for the first time. I want to see films of it, the John Huston one to begin with. I’d like to read a graphic novel version. I want this Melville Mug. I want to read Bartleby, the Scrivener. I want to go whalewatching. I’d love to visit Nantucket. I want this t-shirt. And I want to read Melville’s masterpiece again and to experience it at my own reading pace. And then I want to read it again and again, picking out different parts each time, deepening my reading of it.

For me, my first experience of Moby-Dick was: bones and sharks, fatal flaws and tragedy, breathtaking images and beautiful prose, roaring dialogue. A haunting awareness of the unknowable. And, of course, it was the White Whale, all other whales, philosophy and fate, elusive narrators and handsome cannibals. It was also technology, the whaling industry, its prows and lines, a fascinating novel of the workplace. This last, despite the fact I often failed as a reader to fully submit to what Melville is thought to be doing with Ahab, casting the working American man as tragic hero. Often, I was too bewitched by Melville’s acute eye for human nature, and rather oddly found myself using another, more contemporary American outlook – modern psychology and therapy – to describe the Pequod’s captain (he’s a narcissist! his crew are enablers!).

I do have some appreciation of where the novel stands in American culture, from reading about and absorbing the novel over so many months and having read, as soon as I finished the Epilogue today, the excellent Andrew Delbanco introduction in my UK Penguin edition of the book. I also loved an essay by Greil Marcus that I found online (especially what he says about Ishmael meeting Ahab for the first time).

Like any great book, Moby-Dick opens up its time and culture when you study. Melville was deeply engaged in writing about his America in the book, a land still thrilled by the possibilities of new identities and riven by industrialisation and racial tension. I’m also aware that events in the book were partly inspired by the real-life sinking of a whale ship called the Essex, which I would like to learn more about. A great book often opens up other literature, too. Investigating the intertexts for Melville’s great work soon leads you to Shakespeare and the Bible, a healthy smattering of classic myth and no doubt many other sources I have not yet detected.

But I must also remember to sometimes set aside study, theory, and the countless other ways in which time can be spent thinking about Moby-Dick, in favour of sailing through the great territories of its heart by reading it. I agree with Delbanco:

For anyone who has experienced Moby-Dick, it is a privilege to introduce it to another reader – but a privilege that is abused if extended much beyond the invitation. As Melville says of the sperm whale’s brow, ‘I but put that brow before you. Read it if you can’.

Visit mobydickbigread.com to listen to the readings. Warm thanks to Angela Cockayne, Philip Hoare, the readers, the artists, and the entire Big Read team. Congratulations to all listeners who made it this far and thank you to those who took the time to comment here on my blog. It means a lot.

If you have enjoyed the recordings as much as I have, please consider making a donation to the project’s chosen charity, Whale & Dolphin Conservation.

The Moby-Dick Big Read: Chapters 128 to 134

The nineteenth of my weekly posts on reading Herman Melville’s classic American novel a chapter a day with the Moby-Dick Big Read daily podcast.


Here we are in the final full week of the Moby-Dick Big Read! Tomorrow the last chapter, Chapter 135, will be uploaded. Then, on Tuesday, 29th January 2013, a reading of the Epilogue will complete the project.

This week’s readings have brought us to the penultimate day of the three-day chase of the White Whale, two long chapters of action, rage, terror in Melville’s vivid prose. We’ve also been up close to the emotions of the men on board, from the grief of Pip and despair of Starbuck to further insight into the violent throb of Ahab’s obsession.

My favourite image this week is the above photograph 80deg north by Alex Hartley which accompanied Chapter 131. I love its intimate glimpse into the off-kilter world of being at sea.

The Story This Week

The Pequod meets the tragedy-stricken ship the Rachel (128). Later, we see more of the relationship between Ahab and Pip (129). The captain surveys his ship, inscrutable under the brow of his hat, until a sea-bird swoops and flies off with it (130). The Pequod then meets another beleagured ship: this time, the Delight, who has had a terrible encounter with the White Whale (131). Peaceful weather leads Ahab into a lament about his life (132). At long last, the crew of the Pequod give chase to Moby Dick (133 & 134).

The Readings

Chapter 128: The Pequod Meets the Rachel, Read by Alice Herrick. Artist: Gavin Turk

English artist Alice Herrick, who also contributed art for Chapter 104, reads this chapter where the Pequod meets Nantucket ship the Rachel. The Rachel has recently lost men in a whale hunt, including the captain’s son. The captain, whom Ahab knows, beseeches him to join the search for the missing crew. Ahab refuses.

Like its Biblical namesake, the Rachel has lost its children. The last line of this chapter (‘She was Rachel, weeping for her children, because they were not’) closely follows a line in the King James version about the Biblical woman Rachel in Matthew 2:18.

Chapter 129: The Cabin, Read by Rev. Nick McKinnel. Artist: Darren Lago

Read by Plymouth church rector and Anglican Bishop of Crediton, this chapter is a sad account of Ahab and Pip. The first line describes a a moving moment when Ahab walks off and the little boy ‘catches him by the hand to follow’. But Ahab asks the boy to stay safely below deck as the hunt of Moby Dick draws near. The short chapter closes with a somehow creepy image of the sea seeming to crowd into Pip alone in the dark cabin.

Perhaps Ahab really does have the boy’s safety in mind, but mostly he appears to be carefully tending to the flame of his obsession. He tells the boy:

The hour is coming when Ahab would not scare thee from him, yet would not have thee by him. There is that in thee, poor lad, which I feel too curing to my malady.

Over at patell.org, Prof. Patell draws out the way Melville has modelled Ahab and Pip on King Lear and his fool in Shakespeare.

Chapter 130: The Hat, Read by Diana Speed. Artist: Graham Day

BBC radio announcer Diana Speed lends her professional voice to this account of Ahab and his hat. The mood on board the Pequod takes a very solemn turn in this chapter: ‘all humor, forced or natural, vanished’. Ahab watches his crew unstintingly now, inscrutable beneath the brow of his hat. There is also a change in Fedallah, who has an ‘added, gliding strangeness’ and, for all he seems to influence and guide Ahab, the power balance is made clear in this chapter: ‘Ahab seemed an independent lord; the Parsee but his slave… For be this Parsee what he may, all rib and keel was solid Ahab.’

Ahab takes it upon himself to keep watch, impatient to see the White Whale. He instructs Starbuck to hold his safety rope, which seems a curious choice given the horrible tension between the two men. Looks like Ahab sees clearly that he will get his way aboard this ship.

Ishmael takes a moment, sounding more like Ishmael of old, to step in and tell us about the use of ropes to secure sailors in their perch. Basically, the rope securing the sailor has to be especially watched ‘Because in such wilderness of running rigging, whose various different relations aloft cannot always be infallibly discerned by what is seen of them at the deck’. A treacherous situation known to anyone who has ventured into the tangle of cables at the back of their telly and managed to unplug the wrong thing.

When Ahab is ‘perched aloft’ he is attacked by a bird that wants his hat. It succeeds in plucking it from his head and flying off with it, leading to one of my favourite images in the book:

Ahab’s hat was never restored; the wild hawk flew on and on with it; far in advance of the prow: and at last disappeared; while from the point of that disappearance, a minute black spot was dimly discerned, falling from that vast height into the sea.

Ishmael details the symbolic significance of this, referring to an incident in Roman history where a man became king after an eagle stole then replaced his hat. No such luck for Ahab.

Chapter 131: The Pequod Meets the Delight, Read by Daniel Allen. Artist: Alex Hartley

I can’t track down this reader – as always, get in touch if you can help out!

The Pequod meets the Delight, a Nantucket ship that has recently hunted the White Whale and was nearly destroyed by it. For me, the skeletal imagery used about its splintered boats like the ‘half-unhinged, and bleaching skeleton of a horse’ has echoes of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner again (a more explicit reference has already been made to this in Chapter 52: The Albatross).

While still in the gam with the Pequod, the Delight begins disposing of the bodies of its men killed by Moby Dick by throwing them overboard. Ahab suddenly sees that his own ship will be polluted by this action and urges the Pequod to sail on. However, ‘some of the flying bubbles might have sprinkled her hull with their ghostly baptism’.

Chapter 132: The Symphony, Read by Cerys Matthews. Artist: Martin Thomas

Welsh singer/songwriter Cerys Matthews, of Catatonia fame, gives a heartfelt, moving reading of this remarkable chapter where Ahab is nearly overwhelmed by his existence and his past.

A spell of good weather sends him into bleak contemplation. I loved the imagery here, of Ahab against the clear blue sky and the idea only man can become old, compared to the ‘immortal infancy’ of the world. Ahab weeps, and Starbuck goes to him. He tells the first mate he is weary and desolate, and ‘intolerably old’. He thinks of his wife and son at home. Starbuck is deeply moved: perhaps Ahab has a ‘noble soul’ after all! Once more, he urges the captain to turn back. But the glimmer of hope is dashed. Ahab closes up and will speak only now of fate, and how he must hunt the whale. Starbuck is ‘blanched to a corpse’s hue with despair’.

Although the twisted and broken captain is sad, this whole sequence exacerbated my own lack of sympathy for the Pequod’s captain. All of the moments in the novel where he shows compassion or feeling, as here, only makes his narcissistic, relentlessly damaging behaviour more grotesque.

He seems all ego, brittle and propped up on this demented quest that he has given himself. It is especially telling that, thinking back over the privation of 40 years at sea, he exclaims: ‘for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep!’

Except: the war is in his mind. Although his job is a difficult one (and often profound, if we listen to Ishmael) framing it as war, – that theatre of grand epic and noble heroes – says more about Ahab than his profession. He seems caught in an ego trap, a ‘throwing good money after bad’ situation. It seems that if Ahab were to abandon his quest now, his ego could not sustain it. Perhaps because then, he’d only be a sad, old captain who should have returned home long ago.

I wish Starbuck would act against the captain, but his passivity seems as fated as Ahab’s deadly monomania.

On a lighter note, I don’t understand what’s happening with Ahab’s hat. Specifically: he has one again, despite losing it to an angry sea-hawk in Chapter 130. I guess he came prepared with more than one hat, but that makes the fact he lost one a bit less dramatic, don’t you think?

Chapter 133: The Chase – First Day, Read by Kerry Shale. Artist: John Chilver

A consumate reading from Kerry Shale, who lends his professional talents as an actor and voice artist to the thrilling first day of the hunt. These are three chapters I have been most tempted to rush through in one sitting, at my own reading pace. However, they are, of course, also the three most suited to the once-a-day schedule, each being set on one of three consecutive days!

There is so much in this chapter: frenetic action, meaningful interactions between the men, remarkable imagery and description, aphoristic wisdom. However, I want to keep my thoughts on it brief today, since this is an account of my own first reading, and my first reading of this chapter was very much focused on the sheer thrill and suspense of the hunt.

It is Ahab who spies the whale. The doubloon, which he nailed to the mast (Chapter 36) for a reward to the man who first spotted his nemesis, is now Ahab’s own. The ship gives chase. Soon the captain is engaged in close battle with Moby Dick, who tears one of their boats in two with his jaws before powering away from them. The chapter ends with the men keeping watch for his spout and biding their time till the next morning. Ahab promises gold once again to the man who next raises Moby-Dick.

The descriptions of the white whale here, especially when it curls up out of the water from below Ahab’s boat like a nightmare, are breathtaking.

There is a footnote in this chapter that isn’t in the recording. It comes after ‘vindictively tossing their shivered spray still higher into the air’ and you can read it here (scroll to the bottom for the text starting ‘Note: This motion…’).

Chapter 134: The Chase – Second Day, Read by Roger Allam. Artist: Sean Landers

Another excellent professional reading, this time by English actor Roger Allam doing a superb American accent. I recognise him as Peter Mannion MP from UK comedy The Thick Of It, but he has had a long and successful career on stage too. The art that accompanies this reading is Around The World Alone (The Gloucesterman) by Sean Landers, which was used in a lot of the promotional material for the project.

Another thrilling day of the three-day hunt of Moby-Dick. Again, they battle the whale and Ahab is injured – his false leg is shattered. Starbuck, whom Ishmael notes ‘thus far had been the foremost to assist him’ helps steady his captain. Ahab makes an angry comment about having such a ‘craven mate’ … but claims to have been referring to his body in relation to his spirit.

After the whale has escaped again and the men have recovered from the chaos (‘the wild simultaneousness of a thousand concreted perils’), the men see that Fedallah is missing. He cannot be found. Ahab is distressed, but carries on. He also reminds Starbuck that he will not be deflected from his fate, and says the ugliest thing about himself:

Ye see an old man cut down to the stump; leaning on a shivered lance; propped up on a lonely foot. ‘Tis Ahab—his body’s part; but Ahab’s soul’s a centipede, that moves upon a hundred legs.

Ugh. An image more suited to an 80s body horror movie than Ahab’s supposedly noble quest. The chapter ends with dusk falling and Ahab keeping watch for the morning. Ominously, he recalls that the Parsee prophesied he’d be seen again before Ahab could die. The captain is baffled by this and vows to get to the bottom of the strange, conflicting information.

There’s an extra sentence in my paper copy of the book compared to this recording. In my edition, when Ahab is back on board after the encounter with Moby-Dick, after he says ‘… I account no living bone of mind one jot more than me, than this dead one that’s lost’ he says this:

Nor white whale, nor man, nor fiend, can so much as graze old Ahab in his own proper and inaccessible being.

Visit mobydickbigread.com to listen to the readings. On Tuesday 29th January 2013 I will post about my experience of listening to the final two readings. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

The project organisers ask that any donations for the Big Read go to the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society. Visit the WDC  webpage here.

like a piece of knitting

I think I write with the blood that goes to the ends of my fingers, and it is a very sensuous act. For that reason I could never learn to write what I think of as real writing with the cut-and-paste on the computer because I have to have a whole page in front of me that I wrote, like a piece of knitting.

A. S. Byatt, The Art of Fiction No. 168 at the Paris Review.

The Moby-Dick Big Read: Chapters 121 to 127

The eighteenth of my weekly posts on reading Herman Melville’s classic American novel a chapter a day with the Moby-Dick Big Read daily podcast.


This week I’d like to point you to The Final Pursuit, the closing ceremony of the Moby-Dick Big Read. It’s taking place in Plymouth, UK on Tuesday, 29th January. I’m gutted I won’t be able to make it – it looks like it’s going to be a great night! Find out more about the event here.

I’d also like to point you towards a recent BBC radio interview with Big Read co-creator Philip Hoare. At the time of writing it’s still available to stream online (skip to 12 mins 50 secs). When asked his thoughts on the book, he had this to say:

The sheer folly of human hubris that we invest an animal with a sense of evil when animals act according to instinct. It’s only man that acts according to evil. That’s the key point.

I was also thrilled by an article that has been doing the rounds on Twitter. Scientists have discovered living bowhead whales who they suspect are up to 200 years old. That is: they were around before Melville wrote Moby-Dick. Incredible.

One more piece of Moby-Dick trivia from Twitter: check out this random German boardgame from 1962, complete with a box depicting a creature that looks nothing like a sperm whale!

The image above is Three Made Places, 2005 by Antony Gormley and Peter Clegg. Gormley is best known as the creator of the Angel in the North. Six life-sized sculptures also mark out the Leith Walk in Edinburgh. Read more about his collaboration with architect Peter Clegg here. In the context of Moby-Dick, I like how Three Made Places involves man shaping meaning out of a blank whiteness.

The Story This Week

Stubb and Flask chat as they lash the anchors at midnight in bad weather (121). Tashtego lashes a sail and wishes the thunder would stop (122). The weather takes a turn for the better and Starbuck goes below deck to inform Ahab. The captain is asleep and Starbuck thinks long and hard about the loaded musket hanging outside the door (123). The next morning, the Pequod crew discover that the storm has affected the needle of the compass. Ahab fixes it (124), then decides to measure the ships progress with the log and line. He also befriends Pip (125). A sailor falls overboard and is lost. The life-buoy sinks when it is thrown to him, so they make a new one out of Queequeg’s coffin (126). Ahab speaks to the carpenter about it (127).

The Readings

Chapter 121: Midnight – The Forecastle Bulwarks, Read by Robert Fearns. Artist: Marcus Coates

UK artist Robert Fearns gives a slow-paced reading of Chapter 121. After Ahab commands Starbuck to lash everything on the ship, we see Stubb and Flask lashing the anchors and speculating about their captain and lightning rods. Their talk is as irreverent as always:

“Why don’t ye be sensible, Flask? it’s easy to be sensible; why don’t ye, then? any man with half an eye can be sensible.”

“I dont know that, Stubb. You sometimes find it rather hard.”

“Yes, when a fellow’s soaked through, it’s hard to be sensible, that’s a fact.”

Chapter 122: Midnight Aloft – Thunder and Lightning, Read by Max Goonetillake. Artist: Colter Jacobsen

A young boy’s voice for a great reading of the shortest chapter in the book, complete with thunder sound effects. I supect Max is related to Sam Goonetillake, Big Read co-creator Philip Hoare’s brother-in-law. Tashtego is grumpy about having to lash sails in the middle of the storm. He’d much rather have some rum.

This chapter seemed to me quite cinematic, a brief flash to activity elsewhere on the ship.

Chapter 123: The Musket, Read by Nick Ryan. Artist: Philip Hoare

Composer Nick Ryan reads this amazing, tense chapter. Also: today’s image is by project co-creator Philip Hoare!

Starbuck goes below to inform Ahab that the weather has taken a turn for the better, and the scene takes on a psychological thriller hue, when he realises that the harmful old man is asleep and the musket hanging outside his cabin door is fully loaded. An anguished monologue follows, as Starbuck wrestles with the idea of ending the problem of Ahab.

A basic, eternal dilemma: kill one to save many? I felt there was a commentary about Christianity here too, especially where the narration mentions that the crew ‘tamely suffers’ their evil captain. I wanted Starbuck to do it.

Chapter 124: The Needle, Read by Stephanie Boxall. Artist: Tessa Farmer

Not sure who this reader is, but it’s a nice reading of a dramatic scene involving Ahab. The bad electrical weather has turned the ship’s compass to the opposite reading. The sun lies astern and it is early morning – and although the sun must be in the east, the ship is sailing the opposite way. Weirdly, only Ahab notices.

… every soul was confounded; for the phenomenon just then observed by Ahab had unaccountably escaped every one else; but its very blinding palpableness must have been the cause.

Instead of sailing east toward the White Whale, the Pequod was in fact fleeing homewards. Ahab, however, can fix the compass, impressing the men (this is narrated in a rather critical way):

One after another they peered in, for nothing but their own eyes could persuade such ignorance as theirs, and one after another they slunk away.

In another moment that seems to chime with thoughts on Christianity from the last chapter, we then see Ahab lit up with fatal pride.

Chapter 125: The Log and Line, Read by Sheila Snelgrove. Artist: Theo Jansen

Sheila Snelgrove is Director of the Barbican Theatre, Plymouth, and reads this chapter for us. Despite the fact it is rotted from disuse, Ahab decides to use the ‘log and line’ to measure the Pequod’s progress. See patell.org for lots of information and imagery on this nautical tool.

The most interesting thing for me in this chapter is that Ahab takes poor little Pip under his wing, lamenting the cruelty of the gods and wishing the boy had had a better life. A different aspect to Ahab, one that I had forgotten when urging Starbuck to kill him in Chapter 123. I wonder what Ahab sees himself as. But, although his compassion for Pip is moving, it is almost grotesque on the background of the larger risks he is taking with his entire crew.

Chapter 126: The Life-Buoy, Read by Paul Minot. Artist: John Wood & Paul Harrison

I’m not sure who this reader is. As always, if you know please do get in touch! It’s an excellent, well-paced reading.

After the crew is troubled by strange, human-sounding cries – Ahab explains that the men have heard the seals on the nearby rocks – a sailor falls overboard and is lost to the sea. It turns out the ship’s life-buoy is as rotten and useless as its ‘log and line’ in the last chapter. The men determine that a new one should be made, but the only suitable item on board is Queequeg’s coffin (the one he had made back in Chapter 110). The symbolism is obvious and troubles the men. It also makes the carpenter, charged with refitting the coffin for its new purpose, really grumpy. He’s sure that the job is beneath him, ‘a cobbling sort of business’. His entire reaction is really humourous (and also irritates the troubled Starbuck, who ‘goes off in a huff’.

I enjoyed Ishmael’s account of how sailors feel about seals:

… most mariners cherish a very superstitious feeling about seals, arising not only from their peculiar tones when in distress, but also from the human look of their round heads and semi-intelligent faces, seen peeringly uprising from the water alongside. In the sea, under certain circumstances, seals have more than once been mistaken for men.

In Scotland (in common with Faroese, Irish and Icelandic traditions), there is folklore about seals. They are known as selkies and are thought to shed their skins to assume human form on land. The stories told about them are dark and dreamlike: of lovers who disappear back into the sea, or who are trapped on land by men who steal their skins.

Chapter 127: The Deck, Read by Tom Thoroughgood & Cyrus Larcombe-Moore. Artist: Antony Gormley & Peter Clegg

According to this New York Times article, 12-year-old Cyrus is the youngest reader in the project and Tom Thoroughgood is his teacher. I wonder if Cyrus also contributed the image for Chapter 107?

We learn that Ahab is troubled by the idea of a life-buoy being made of a coffin, and also by the fact the same man who made his new leg will be the one carrying out this strange work. Ahab muses oddly about a dead body sounding of nothing in a coffin, and the chapter ends with a soliloquy from him. He muses on the carpenter, and how the man’s hammer ticks like the clock of time. before turning to Pip to seek wisdom. He declares: ‘I do suck most wondrous philosophies from thee!’

Back in Chapter 117, Ahab sought prophecy from his man Fedallah. This behaviour of Ahab, the leader and tyrant seeking wisdom from a select few he brings close to him, reminds me of historical figures who kept confidants, and of contemporary successful figures who swear by self-help gurus or keep astrologers on their staff. Ways, it seems to me, of finding assurance when you’re isolated at the top. It is troubling that Ahab has chosen a man whom none of the crew trust, and a boy made mad by the sea.

Visit mobydickbigread.com to listen to the readings. I’ll post my thoughts on chapters 128 to 134 here on Sunday, 27th January 2013. I’ll then post my experience of the final two readings on Tuesday, 29th January 2013.

The project organisers ask that any donations for the Big Read go to the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society. Visit the WDC  webpage here.

The Moby-Dick Big Read: Chapters 114 to 120

The seventeenth of my weekly posts on reading Herman Melville’s classic American novel a chapter a day with the Moby-Dick Big Read daily podcast.


This week, we have seen a lot of Ahab and his man Fedallah, and there have been several vivid, fierce passages that key into this novel’s obsessions with religion, fire, fate and prophecy, culminating in the the thrilling events of Chapter 119: The Candles. As we enter the last few weeks, I’ve found myself enjoying the engagement with the themes and symbols that have emerged. And, since we’re into the seventeenth week of readings, I took the time to go back over passages of the novel to contemplate what I know of Ahab, our multi-voiced narrator Ishmael and all the main characters of the ship. There is just so much going on in this book that the more I read of it, and the more I think about it, the more it opens up new avenues of thought and detail, even on a first reading.

The haunting image above is Horizon Line by Sarah Chapman, which accompanied the reading for Chapter 120 (I think this is the same Sarah Chapman who is Arts Director for Plymouth Arts).

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation charity also tweeted a gorgeous photograph of a group of sperm whales at sea taken by Eric Cheng. There is a whole series of these photos – you can see 20 of them at X-ray Mag here. Several of them are of groups of whales, which reminds me of the ‘caravan’ of mothers and calves in Chapter 87.

The Story This Week

The Pequod sails into good weather (114). They meet successful Nantucket ship the Bachelor, but Ahab refuses to socialise with the happy crew (115). The Pequod makes four whale kills shortly afterwards. (116). Ahab’s sleep is then disturbed by unpleasant dreams (117). Ahab measures the ship’s latitude and thinks about fate and the limits of science (118). The crew have a tormented time during a thunderstorm, coming close to mutiny (119). Later, Ahab refuses to listen to Starbuck about the day-to-day running of the Pequod (120).

The Readings

Chapter 114: The Gilder, Read by Tom Maryniak. Artist: Rosie Snell

UK artist Tom Maryniak reads this short chapter where the Pequod is sailing in good weather in Japanese waters. Ishmael makes the ‘dreamy quietude’ of the sea into a domestic scene, seeing the relaxed seamen ‘like hearth-stone cats they purr against the gunwale’. Even Ahab is affected by the peaceful mood, but it also spurs him to a tormented monologue about his quest. He talks about the ‘warp and woof’ of the threads of life, an image that has been used in Ishmael in previous chapters and by Melville to describe the nature of his large, digressive novel.

Also, every time sharks are mentioned in this book I find the imagery beautiful. Here, Starbuck mentions ‘the teeth-tiered sharks’.

I’m not sure what the title of this chapter means. I see online that a gilder was a craftsman who applied an overlay of gold or gilt to materials. Perhaps Ishmael is simply playing on the way the seamen overlay their happy, pleasant ‘land-like’ feelings onto the ‘remorseless fang’ of the ocean in this chapter.

Chapter 115: The Pequod Meets the Bachelor, Read by Stormy, Josiah and Nathaniel Mayo. Artist: Tanya Kovats

This chapter is read by a father and two sons from Provincetown in the US. The Pequod meets Nantucket whaling ship the Bachelor, which has been phenomenally successful at sea and is practically overflowing with sperm oil. Its crew form a ‘rejoicing drama’ that displeases Ahab, bound as he is in the bleak tragedy of his own ship. The two ships part ways, the Bachelor sailing merrily before the breeze, the Pequod in the opposite direction against it.

Why does Ahab have a vial of ‘Nantucket soundings’ (i.e. the sand collected when measuring the depth of the water) in his pocket? My assumption is that it a ritual or superstition for him, but I’d like to know more.

Chapter 116: The Dying Whale, Read by Jenny Cuffe. Artist: Tony Oursler

Chapter 116 is read nicely for us by BBC presenter Jenny Cuffe. This late stretch of the novel increasingly shows Ahab on stage and we’re seeing much more of him than we did in the first part of the novel. Its well known that Melville is heavily influenced by Shakespeare – that elaborate dialogue, the bawdy jokes – and we’ve seen the conventions of drama lifted directly into Moby-Dick several times now, complete with stage directions, the monologues and so on.

If it was written purely in a prose narrative, I’d feel somehow that Ahab is far too talkative for the sullen, impenetrable monomaniac he is meant to be. However, his speech is best recognised as dramatic monologue and soliloquy within the novel.

In Chapter 116, despite Ahab’s negative attitude, some of the good fortune of the Bachelor seems to have rubbed off on the Pequod: the crew kill four whales. One of these is slain by Ahab, and he watches its death throes. Ishmael tells us that when a sperm whale is dying, it is observed turning its head sunwards. The Pequod’s captain finds an intense, new wonder in this and speculates on his own relationship with the sea and death.

Chapter 117: The Whale Watch, Read by Dr Routledge. Artist: i-DAT

Reader Dr Chris Routledge is a writer and academic based in Liverpool who is collaborating with Margaret Guroff of the Power Moby-Dick website to create a new print edition of Melville’s novel. See their Kickstarter funding page here.

This is an excellent, creepy section where Ahab’s sleep is disturbed by dreams of death. He seeks counsel with Fedallah (‘the Parsee’), who prophesies for him. Ahab concludes that he is ‘Immortal on land and on sea!’ since Fedallah says ‘Hemp only can kill thee’. Surely, thinks Ahab, he can only mean the gallows? The reader is not so sure.

Ishmael describes Ahab’s groans in sleep as ‘like the moaning in squadrons over Asphaltites of unforgiven ghosts of Gomorrah’. My Penguin edition of the novel informs me Asphaltites is another name for the Dead Sea. And, of course, Gomorrah is a Biblical reference, one of the cities of vice consumed by God in fire.

I loved the spooky descriptions in this chapter: the back of the dead whale in the water at night; Ahab and Fedallah like ‘the last men in a flooded world’ and more beautiful shark imagery: ‘the sharks, that spectrally played round the whale, and tapped the light cedar planks with their tails’.

Chapter 118: The Quadrant, Read by Horatio Morpurgo. Artist: Volker Eichelmann

English writer Horatio Morpurgo reads this chapter. A quadrant is a device used to measure latitude – see patell.org for a concise history and image of it. We get more insight into the Pequod’s captain as he takes his measurement. In a pathological, narcissistic way, he turns everything back to himself and his quest: even the sun is wanting because it cannot tell him everything about his own situation. As Ahab rages against the world, Fedallah, who had been kneeling passively at his captain’s feet, reacts:

As the frantic old man thus spoke and thus trampled with his live and dead feet, a sneering triumph that seemed meant for Ahab, and a fatalistic despair that seemed meant for himself – these passed over the mute, motionless Parsee’s face.

What exactly has brought Fedallah aboard the Pequod? A fascinating, cryptic moment.

Chapter 119: The Candles, Read by Mary Martin. Artist: Colin Crumplin

Another Provincetown resident reading here: this time musician Mary Martin. Regular blog readers will know I’m especially fond of chapters where readers add their own sound and music – here, the recording opens with notes from a ukelele and Martin sings Stubb’s determinedly jolly song. It’s a confident, nicely paced reading, too.

Events aboard the Pequod in The Candles seem to echo the cultish events back in Chapter 36, The Quarter-Deck, where Ahab swears in his crew to the hunt for Moby-Dick by having them drink from the upturned socket of a harpoon. It feels like an important set piece in the book, as all the crew are brought together to witness Ahab’s behaviour during the storm.

A hair-raising thing happens to the ship: corpusants, or St Elmo’s Fire. This is an electrical weather phenomenon that lights up the tips of metal objects with a blue, flaming glow or ‘coronal discharge’. It is sometimes seen on the wing tips of aeroplanes as well as ships at sea.

I was a teenager in the 90s, raised on a diet of The X-Files, the UFO craze and countless shabby books of conspiracy theories, ghosts and strange phenomena, so I quickly realised I read about this before (for similar reasons, the whale burning in Chapter 96 brought to mind spontaneous combustion). There’s really thorough information on How Stuff Works about it – interestingly, neon lighting works on the same principle of electric charge. And Wikipedia mentions that it features in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, where it is meant as a negative sign.

The Pequod crew certainly don’t react positively to it. This is a remarkable scene, where the men are lit up in the enchanted glow of the ‘corpusants’. Tashtego’s teeth appear ‘shark-white’ and Queequeg’s tattoos burn ‘like Satanic blue flames’.

And we find out the cause of Ahab’s significant, disfiguring scar which Ishmael described so thoroughly in Chapter 28: he was injured during a religious ritual. Not a Christian one, but Zoroastrian. Prof. Patell has an excellent post on what’s going on in this chapter here.

Ahab is sure that the flames of St Elmo’s Fire light the way to Moby Dick. His harpoon is suddenly set alight by the flames and, terrifying the men on board, Ahab sets a foot on the back of Fedallah and roars a monologue to his worship of fire. The crew are appalled. In a desperate, futile moment, Starbuck is moved to grasp his captain by the arm and urge him to abandon his voyage. Ahab refuses, saying that his men are bound to the hunt of the White Whale, then raises the harpoon and blows out the flame.

As in the hurricane that sweeps the plain, men fly the neighborhood of some lone, gigantic elm, whose very height and strength but render it so much the more unsafe, because so much the more a mark for thunderbolts; so at those last words of Ahab’s many of the mariners did run from him in a terror of dismay.

Chapter 120: Toward the End of the First Night Watch – The Deck, Read by Novar Cane. Artist: Sarah Chapman

I couldn’t track down the details of the reader of this snippet of a chapter, where Starbuck has another exchange with his captain about the upkeep of the Pequod. Unlike Chapter 109, where the first mate managed to convince Ahab to attend to the ship, here the old man refuses to grant his request. He orders instead that everything aboard be lashed tight.

My copy of the novel informs me that Ahab’s use of ‘gluepots’ here refers to parsons, i.e. people who marry or ‘glue’ people together, and I think he means it as a derogatory term aimed at his crew. Also, where he talks about his ‘brain-truck': when I hear the word ‘truck’ I automatically pictured a British lorry, then realised that didn’t make sense (although I quite enjoyed the deranged image it evoked). Ahab is referring to the wooden discs fixed high to the rigging of the ship.

I quite liked Ahab saying ‘hooroosh’. It sounds almost Scottish, like some hybrid of stooshie and stramash. Interestingly, the definitions offered for ‘hooroosh’ are close to the meaning of those words. My Penguin edition of the novel reckons it means cries of triumph and excitement; powermobydick lists it as a confusion or agitation.

Visit mobydickbigread.com to listen to the readings. I’ll post my thoughts on chapters 121 to 127 here on Sunday, 20th January 2013. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

The project organisers ask that any donations for the Big Read go to the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society. Visit the WDC  webpage here.

The Moby-Dick Big Read: Chapters 107 to 113

The sixteenth of my weekly posts on reading Herman Melville’s classic American novel a chapter a day with the Moby-Dick Big Read daily podcast.

Knochenmann König”(Bonesman King), 2012 by Peter Sauerer, image for Chapter 112 of the Big Read

Knochenmann König (Bonesman King), 2012 by Peter Sauerer, image for Chapter 112 of the Big Read

This week, a lovely and amazing thing happened. Angela Cockayne and Philip Hoare invited me to read Chapter 113 for the Moby-Dick Big Read. I recorded the chapter at home on Thursday evening and it was uploaded this morning, Sunday 6th January 2013. I can’t thank Angela and Philip enough – I am completely delighted to have been a part of the recordings.

The Story This Week

We meet the Pequod’s skilled carpenter (107) and see him talking to Captain Ahab about fashioning him a new leg (108). With great diplomacy, first mate Starbuck persuades Ahab to allow the crew to attend an oil leak on the ship (109). Queequeg catches a fever while working on the damaged barrels and seems close to death, but rallies round just as the carpenter finishes making his coffin (110). Ishmael beholds the Pacific, his favourite sea (111). We meet the Pequod’s blacksmith, an old man with a tragic past (112). Ahab has him forge fresh weapons for pursuit of Moby Dick, and baptises them in blood (113).

The Readings

Chapter 107: The Carpenter, Read by Lydia Richards. Artist: Cyrus Larcombe-Moore

We meet two tradesmen of the Pequod this week. The first is the carpenter, an efficient and skilled man who has an uncanny sort of ‘stolidity’ about him:

It so shaded off into the surrounding infinite of things, that it seemed one with the general stolidity discernible in the whole visible world; which while pauselessly active in uncounted modes, still eternally holds its peace, and ignores you, though you dig foundations for cathedrals.

The chapter is a remarkable description of the carpenter, and opens with telling comments on Ishmael’s view of humanity: ‘take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates…’.

Chapter 108: Ahab and the Carpenter, Read by R. F. ‘Grif’ Griffith. Artist: Se Thut Quon

This chapter is formatted like a play (as we’ve seen in several earlier Chapters, e.g. 37 to 40) detailing an exchange between Ahab and the carpenter on the deck at night.  Interestingly, the men talk about a sensation Ahab experiences of feeling that his missing leg is still there – a phenomenon we now refer to as a phantom limb.

I also enjoyed the way their exchange is peppered with references to bones. This novel seems to me to be full of bones. That’s one of the reasons I picked Sauerer’s Bonesman King work as this week’s favourite image (above). And one of my favourite lines so far is from Chapter 103, where Ishmael tells us that plantation slaves in America saw a whale fossil and ‘took it for the bones of one of the fallen angels.’ I like the neat way that remark ties up Ishmael’s meditation on the whale and the religious imagery of the book.

Chapter 109: Ahab and Starbuck in the Cabin, Read by Richard Wood. Artist: Matthew Higgs

Reader Richard Wood (the first I’ve been able to identify this week) is a staff member at Plymouth College of Art and gives a nice reading of this short and fascinating scene where Starbuck, the epitome of diplomacy, manages to convince Ahab to act in the interests of the Pequod and let them attend to the leaking oil barrels aboard. Melville’s sharp eye for psychology is on display here, as he depicts the way in which Starbuck handles the conversation with his deranged superior to get what he needs.

This chapter has a footnote that isn’t in the recording – you can read it here (it’s the part beginning ‘In Sperm-whalemen…’).

Chapter 110: Queequeg in His Coffin, Read by Dugald Ferguson. Artist: Oona Grimes

Any chapter with Queequeg is a humorous chapter, it seems – even when he is near death! Artist Dugald Ferguson reads for us. Queequeg falls ill with a fever while working on the leaking oil casks. Ishmael says a startling thing about contemplating the harpooneer’s face, one of the many fine moments where this novel touches mystery and wonder:

An awe that cannot be named would steal over you as you sat by the side of this waning savage, and saw as strange things in his face, as any beheld who were bystanders when Zoroaster died. For whatever is truly wondrous and fearful in man, never yet was put into words or books. And the drawing near of Death, which alike levels all, alike impresses all with a last revelation, which only an author from the dead could adequately tell.

But, although he is prepared for death and has had himself lain in a coffin he has requested from the ship’s carpenter, Queequeg recovers rather unexpectedly. He claims that he’d decided not to die after all because he remembered some business he had to conclude on shore.  The tone is humorous, but all the while Pip (the young boy made mad by his experience of being abandoned at sea in Chapter 93) has been emitting strange cries, stimulated by seeing the harpooneer in his coffin. And Ishmael remarks that the mysteries of Queequeg’s tattoos will die with him, and ‘be unsolved to the last’.

Chapter 111: The Pacific, Read by Mark Carwardine. Artist: Clifford Ross

This short chapter (read by BBC presenter and zoologist Mark Carwardine) shows Ishmael enjoying a quiet moment of beauty as the Pequod reaches the Pacific, a sea which he describes beautifully and strangely as being made of hidden souls. This quiet moment passes, however, and we hear that Ahab has grown more maniacal as his ship approaches the white whale’s waters.

His firm lips met like the lips of a vice; the Delta of his forehead’s veins swelled like overladen brooks; in his very sleep, his ringing cry ran through the vaulted hull, ‘Stern all! the White Whale spouts thick blood!’

Over at patell.org, Prof. Patell provides interesting information on the islands that Ishmael refers to in this chapter.

Chapter 112: The Blacksmith, Read by Emma Ayres. Artist: Peter Sauerer

Radio presenter Emma Ayres reads this account of the Pequod’s busy blacksmith, Perth. He is an old, saddened man whose life was ruined by alcohol. No family, business or home left, he heeded a calling to go to sea. Ishmael recounts his story almost as a dark fairytale, where alcohol is personified as the ‘Bottle Conjuror’ and his wife’s death described as a moment where she ‘dived down into the long church-yard grass’.

Chapter 113: The Forge, Read by Eva Stalker. Artist: Valerie Favre

This chapter is read by me. My boyfriend helped me figure out how to record it on my laptop (we downloaded Audacity and used a basic headset microphone we had) and a good friend helped me with the Latin pronounciation.

Ahab instructs his blacksmith to forge a harpoon to kill the white whale. It is made of horseshoe steel, twisted together from 12 rods and barbed with razors. When he is satisfied with it, Ahab baptises it in blood from the harpooners. The Latin he howls as he does this means: ‘I baptise you not in the name of the Father, but in the name of the devil!’

The scene closes with Ahab stalking away with his terrifying new weapon. The strange cries of Pip echo across the ship.

On Reading Audio Fiction

I’d long known that reading fiction aloud isn’t easy, but this week, when I had to do it myself for the first time, I got a much better appreciation of just how difficult it is! There’s so much to it.

Since I enjoy listening to audiobooks, I’ll always read any article I come across about the experience of recording them. I loved this Telegraph feature from 2010 on the ‘art of reading aloud’ and enjoyed this LA Times piece on Neville Jason. Jason’s pretty incredible: he has recorded unabridged readings of both Tolstoy and Proust! I’ve listened to his Anna Karenina and it was excellent.

One of the best pieces I’ve read, however, is a 2011 interview on Scottish writer Susie Maguire’s blog with BBC radio producer David Jackson Young. He talks about the skills required and how physical the process is. I think that touches on something about how alive and human it feels to read aloud and to be read to. A short piece in the New York Times last month, urging us to record voices the way we take family photographs, put it this way: ‘Sound is motion, nearly life itself, and compared with the roar of the present, the silence of the past is deafening.’

Visit mobydickbigread.com to listen to the readings. I’ll post my thoughts on chapters 114 to 120 here on Sunday,  13th January 2013. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

The project organisers ask that any donations for the Big Read go to the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society. Visit the WDC  webpage here.

The Moby-Dick Big Read: Chapters 100 to 106

The fifteenth of my weekly posts on reading Herman Melville’s classic American novel a chapter a day with the Moby-Dick Big Read daily podcast.


All the best for 2013 to all Moby-Dick Big Readers! I’ll be back as usual on Sunday, 6th January 2013 to post about the week’s readings. I hope everyone is still enjoying the project. I’m starting to feel a sense of achievement as we move into the final few weeks.

My favourite artist’s contribution for the past seven days is The Empty Temple (2007) by John Isaacs which accompanied Chapter 101. Thanks to this week’s reading from Sir David Attenborough on the survival of whales, the modern whaling industry was not far from my mind. Isaacs’ collage image, juxtaposing modern industry with an antique place of worship (and in Moby-Dick, the whale itself is a place of worship), resonates with this theme.

The Story This Week

The Pequod meets English whaler the Samuel Enderby, and Ahab quizzes its captain about Moby Dick (100). Ishmael tells us a little about the history of European whalers and where the English got their habit of having hearty meals on board (101). Next, we hear Ishmael’s knowledge of the sperm whale skeleton (102), including an example he saw in the Arsacides (102) and an account of fossil specimens (104). Then, he wonders whether the whale will become extinct (105) before returning us to the Pequod to tell us about Ahab’s terrible accident (106).

The Readings

Chapter 100: Leg and Arm, Read by Erica Wagner. Artist: Wim Delvoye

This chapter is read nicely by US-born Erica Wagner, the current literary editor of The Times. I found an excerpt online of an article she wrote in 2009 about fiction vs. memoir (excerpt here, full article is behind the paywall). She says:

Fiction recreates the world not in fragments, but miraculously as a whole; you will learn more about life, your own and other people’s, from Middlemarch, Madame Bovary or Moby-Dick than you are likely to from yards and yards of memoir.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot this year. Two of the best books I read in 2012 blurred the boundaries between novel and memoir: Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death In The Family (My Struggle: Book One).

Chapter 100 is a lively chapter of action aboard the Pequod where Ahab becomes enraged by the good-humoured, ever-joking English crew. That the English men are so normal rather casts into relief the dysfunctional psychology aboard the Pequod. There’s a sly nod to this when the Enderby’s captain, Captain Boomer, says ‘I have a devil of a boat’s crew’. It is difficult not to think wryly of Ahab’s men, especially Fedallah, at this point.

Boomer has also been badly wounded by Moby-Dick (in fact, by one of the harpoons left in him by Ahab, it seems) but has had a very different reaction to losing a limb.

He’s welcome to the arm he has, since I can’t help it, and didn’t know him then; but not to another one. No more White Whales for me; I’ve lowered for him once, and that has satisfied me. There would be great glory in killing him, I know that; and there is a ship-load of precious sperm in him, but, hark ye, he’s best let alone; don’t ye think so, Captain?

Further appalling Ahab, the English ship’s surgeon cheerfully opines that there is no malice in the whale. In fact, since he’d struggle to digest the human limbs, he only takes them by accident when meaning to feint during battle. The meeting doesn’t end well. ‘Is your Captain crazy?’ the English captain finally asks. Ahab returns to the Pequod.

Chapter 101: The Decanter, Read by Zeb Soanes. Artist:John Isaacs

Once you have listened to this reading, you’d be surprised to hear that reader Zeb Soanes wasn’t a broadcaster. Sure enough, he’s a BBC newsreader and, fittingly for our subject matter, his work includes regularly reading the Shipping Forecast. So this is an excellent reading of Chapter 101, one that reminds you how much of the work a professional does to make it easy to follow an audio recording.

In this chapter Ishmael tells us about the remarkable amount of rich food carried on some whaling ships and tells us about a particularly fine English gam that he attended. More evidence that Ishmael prospered after the Pequod, as it’s made clear in Chapter 16 that the Pequod is Ishmael’s first whaling ship.

Chapter 102: A Bower in the Arsacides, Read by Marina Warner. Artist: Jem Finer

Writer and lecturer Warner does a great reading here in her English accent. Her version of Ishmael has somehow ominous tones more distant from his subject than the avuncular or energetic versions others have brought to life. It’s nicely done.

Describing the whale skeleton Ishmael at first likens it to a house before embarking on a vivid description of life being weaved as if in a loom, but then goes onto an even odder sight: the skeleton of a beached whale being used by islanders as a building of worship, and his experience of wandering through it unwinding string to mark his way (like Theseus in the Minotaur’s maze). Unlike Theseus, Ishmael finds nothing in the labyrinth of the leviathan: ‘naught was there but bones’.

The idea of life being weaved echoes something that, according to my Penguin edition, Melville said of the novel itself:

It is the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it.

The most curious thing about this chapter is that Ishmael mentions that he is tattooed with the dimensions of the islanders’ church-skeleton. Not only that, he is ‘crowded for space’ when it comes to fitting in further tattoos. What’s going on here? My first thought, when tattoos are mentioned in this book, is Queequeg, of course. I was surprised to read that Ishmael became tattooed, this school teacher who took to the seas in a fit of hypos so long ago now. It seems that he eventually embraces everything about the ‘wild wanderings’ of the whaler’s life.

Chapter 103: Measurement of the Whale’s Skeleton, Read by Will Eaves. Artist: Dorothy Cross

English writer Eaves gives us this short chapter on the more precise dimensions of whale skeletons. There’s a nice light tone from Ishmael here as he embarks on taking us on another grand tour of something whale-related:

But as the colossal skull embraces so very large a proportion of the entire extent of the skeleton; as it is by far the most complicated part; and as nothing is to be repeated concerning it in this chapter, you must not fail to carry it in your mind, or under your arm, as we proceed, otherwise you will not gain a complete notion of the general structure we are about to view.

I adored the conclusion of this chapter, where Ishmael tells us that the smallest vertebrae of a particular specimen have been lost, taken by the priest’s children for a game of marbles.

Thus we see how the spine of even the hugest of living things tapers off at last into simple child’s play.

Chapter 104: The Fossil Whale, Read by Elizabeth Bradfield. Artist: Alice Herrick

Bradfield is an American poet who lives in Cape Cod and is the first reader to introduce herself on the recording – and tell us her precise location as she reads! She is, we are told, on a ship at 54 degrees 55 minutes south and 60 degrees 14 minutes west. I played with Google Maps: if you put in these coordinates as “54 55S, 60 14W”  it will show you where she was, I think. Very cool.

Ishmael comes over all weary at the challenge he has set himself in his big book about whales but dismisses the idea of setting himself a smaller project – harking back, it seems to me, to other places where he has been impatient with small, ‘domestic’ lives, he says acidly that ‘No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.’

Chapter 105: Does the Whale’s Magnitude Diminish? Will He Perish? Read by Sir David Attenborough. Artist: Agnes Denes

This is the chapter I have been most looking forward to, because I knew from the project launch publicity that Sir David Attenborough would be reading it. I find it moving that, in 2012, the renowned natural history broadcaster would read a piece of writing published in 1851 on the survival of the whale (and one which gets it so wrong). One of the finest moments of the Big Read for me.

Melville was writing about fossils when a craze for discovering and collecting them had gripped Victorian Britain, triggering important new thinking about geology and nature (the greatest fossil hunter, Mary Anning, made some of the most important geological finds ever recorded). Ishmael discusses extinction and the ‘mutations of the globe’, so much so I was unnerved and I double-checked I had been right to believe the novel pre-dates the widespread publication of Darwin’s and Wallace’s ideas (which I had mentioned in my post including Chapter 32). It’s strange to perceive the over-arching thread of natural selection floating tantalisingly out of reach.

And I was thrilled by the conclusion of Chapter 105, where Ishmael soars close to the mystery of life by contemplating the eternal antiquity of the whale.

Over at patell.org, there’s fascinating information about the technological innovations in the whaling industry that soon put whales under dire threat. For information on the modern whaling industry and the effect it has on whales, visit the Whale and Dolphin Conservation website.

Chapter 106: Ahab’s Leg, Read by Joyelle McSweeney. Artist: Guy Ben-Ner

American poet, critic and literary professor Joyelle McSweeney reads this chapter, where Ishmael tells us that ‘by some unknown, and seemingly inexplicable, unimaginable casualty’ Ahab has been injured – nearly castrated – by his ivory leg which came loose somehow and ‘all but pierced his groin’. This took place shortly before the Pequod set sail, hence the captain’s confinement back in Nantucket and in the first part of the current voyage.

Nor, at the time, had it failed to enter his monomaniac mind, that all the anguish of that then present suffering was but the direct issue of a former woe…

Ishmael goes on to express how ‘all miserable events do naturally beget their like’. I found this chapter uncomfortable to read, dealing as it does with the psychology of someone who has been maimed and continues to suffer new problems that they trace back to the original attack. Thoughts of how one might feel about such a situation came up earlier this week in Chapter 100, with the English captain and his sunnier outlook. But this time, we are left only with Ahab.

Visit mobydickbigread.com to listen to the readings. I’ll post my thoughts on chapters 107 to 113 here on Sunday,  6th January 2013. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

The project organisers ask that any donations for the Big Read go to the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society. Visit the WDC  webpage here.

The Moby-Dick Big Read: Chapters 93 to 99

The fourteenth of my weekly posts on reading Herman Melville’s classic American novel a chapter a day with the Moby-Dick Big Read daily podcast.

Ahab's America Pequod 2010 by Tony de los Reyes which accompanied Chapter 98. The artist also read Chapter 82 for the Big Read.

Ahab’s America Pequod 2010 by Tony de los Reyes which accompanied Chapter 98. The artist also read Chapter 82 for the Big Read.

Merry Christmas to all Moby-Dick Big Readers! We have a little more than five weeks of the Big Read left, with the final chapter due to go live at the end of January 2013.

This week the chapters included one read by Gail Cullen, a Learning Mentor for the Sixth Form in Launceston College in Cornwall. Originally from Glasgow, Gail got in touch with me via my blog when I wrote back in September about the project using a Glaswegian accent. I asked her about how it felt to take part in the Big Read:

Part of the fun is the pace of having a book read to you, the variety of voices and the different ways readers’ deal with ‘their’ chapters, uncovering Melville’s complex layers. There is a sense of ownership that comes with taking part in this project. I think all the readers felt that trust had been put in us, to give as honest a reading as we possibly could, to protect the integrity of Melville’s book.

Gail also attended the Plymouth launch event and had the privilege of hearing Simon Callow do a live reading of Chapter 9, The Sermon:

Unlike Gregory Peck, in the film version, he did not need a bottle of Bourbon to get through the chapter! His reading was a tour de force, exciting, exhilarating, surprising and beautiful.

Many thanks to Gail for taking the time to correspond with me about the Big Read (I am so envious of everyone who got to do a reading!).

The Story This Week

On the Pequod, timid little Pip joins the lowered boats in place of a whaleman who has injured his hand. When the boy leaps into the water in fear one time too many, Stubb pretends to leave him behind in the open sea. But then the boats go off in pursuit of the whale and Pip is nearly abandoned for real. He’s never the same again. (93). Ishmael has a spectacularly good time squeezing whale oil (94) then describes to us the way the whalers peel the skin from the whale penis and wear it like a cassock  while cutting blubber (95). A description of the ‘try-works’ of a whaling ship follows, as the Pequod sails through the night and Ishmael, keeping midnight watch, has a disorienting experience (96). He then explains that unlike other sailors, whalemen never have to sleep in the dark because they’ve hunted their own lamp oil (97). The whale carcass now processed, the crew of the Pequod clean their ship thoroughly, all the while keeping watch for further prey (98). The crew contemplate the doubloon nailed to the mast of their ship (99).

The Readings

Chapter 93: The Castaway, Read by Carolyn Brown. Artist: Duncan Hannah

I think I’m right in linking to the BBC radio journalist Carolyn Brown here. A fast-paced but clear reading of Chapter 93, which is a very sad chapter indeed. Little ship boy Pip, who made his first timid appearance back in Chapter 40, replaces an injured whaleman in a lowered boat but his nerves get the better of him. At first, the depiction of Pip being so scared that he leaps from the boat is comical, but things take a bleak turn when, thanks to Stubb, he nearly gets left behind in the open water (‘The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God!’). The experience turns him strange.

He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad.

I wonder, has the Pequod made another prophet here? What will Pip say to them, what does he see?

Chapter 94: A Squeeze of the Hand, Read by Tony Kushner. Artist: Viktor Wynd

American playwright Kushner is best known for his play Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes and gives a great, droll reading of this chapter, where Ishmael comes over all funny squeezing the ‘sperm’ aboard the Pequod. The whole experience tips him into a brief but vivid fantasy about worldwide brotherly love.

Chapter 95: The Cassock, Read by John Waters. Artist: David Musgrave

Cult US filmmaker Waters (Hairspray, Pink Flamingos) reads this short chapter about the penis of the whale. Note that if you aren’t listening along with a printed/text edition that Waters leaves out a footnote which you can read here.

Religious imagery and rude jokes are played with here, from referring to the peeled skin of the organ as a ‘cassock’, i.e. clerical robe to the spelling of ‘archbishoprick’. There’s a detailed analysis over at Patell.org.

Chapter 96: The Try-Works, Read by Mark Ashurst. Artist: Mark Titchner

I think the Ashurst who reads this chapter is the one I link to above, Director of the Africa Institute and friend of Philip Hoare (his name, along with several others who have read for the Big Read, appears in the Acknowledgements of Hoare’s book Leviathan. I haven’t read Leviathan yet but a Google search pulled it up). Ashurst reads at a very listenable pace in his English accent.

Ishmael depicts the try-works, equipment that boils whale blubber down to oil. The imagery for me was a strange mix of hellish and domestic: there are hearths and a ‘sea-sofa’, pots and fires, and red shooting flames at night.

Again, Melville’s descriptive writing shines as he depicts the ship at night.

The ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.

Ishmael mentions that eventually the whale ‘burns by his own body’, which made me think about the ‘wick effect’ theory of spontaneous combustion – basically, a relatively small fire can quickly result in an inferno when body fat fuels the flames (more info here, but don’t click if you’re squeamish).

I found it curious that Ishmael described fire as artificial, and ‘the glorious, golden, glad sun, the only true lamp—all others but liars!’

Ishmael is keeping midnight watch as he describes the Pequod to us, and has an odd experience when he loses consciousness or falls asleep and nearly causes the ship real harm. He concludes the chapter by considering what sources of true wisdom there are when many civilised men don’t know true hardship, and echoes a thought he had in chapter 58. Back then, he said ‘as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life.’ Here, he says:

The sun hides not the ocean, which is the dark side of this earth, and which is two thirds of this earth. So, therefore, that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true—not true, or undeveloped.

Chapter 97: The Lamp, Read by James Balla. Artist: Natasha Kidd

Provincetown artist James Balla reads this little snippet of a chapter, where Ishmael tells us proudly that, unlike most other sailors, whalemen needn’t put up with stumbling about in the dark (a sentiment that perhaps he’d use metaphorically too). They hunt their own lamp oil, much as hunters catch their own dinner.

Chapter 98: Stowing Down and Clearing Up, Read by Gail Cullen. Artist: Tony de los Reyes

Originally from Glasgow, Gail is currently a Learning Mentor for the Sixth Form in Launceston College in Cornwall and lends her Glaswegian accent to a great reading of Chapter 98.

There is something very satisfying about this chapter, where the crew clean away all traces of the blood, blubber and bone of the whale carcass they have spent days processing until the ship looks brand new. There is humour in Ishmael’s depiction of the men swaggering about and pretending the ship is an opulent parlour. And then, as always, his thoughts take flight into matters philosophical. Metempsychosis, anyone?

Chapter 99: The Doubloon, Read by Cyrus and Liam Patell. Artist: Mark Hampson

Well, we have none other than Professor Cyrus R K Patell (along with son Liam) reading this chapter! As committed Big Readers will know, Prof. Patell is posting daily about the project over at his website patell.org and is a NYU literature professor who has taught Moby-Dick for years.

He and his son give a great reading of this chapter where the men aboard the Pequod soliloquize about the doubloon nailed to the mast of the Pequod. Ahab nailed it there, back in Chapter 36, The Quarter-Deck: ‘Whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!’

Ahab himself contemplates the coin and sees Lucifer in the moutains etched upon it; sees egoism and the whole world. As when Ishmael reflected in Chapter 86, ‘…gazing at such scenes, it is all in all what mood you are in; if in the Dantean, the devils will occur to you; if in that of Isaiah, the archangels.’ Looks like Ahab’s mind is on the Inferno.

Ishmael puts in his two cents about the sixteen-dollar doubloon, as do Starbuck (his fancies are more heavenly than his captain’s), Stubb (the great pragmatic bully of the Pequod, he shouts at it about star signs and thoroughly enjoys himself), King-Post (an empiricist), Flask (an inconsequential gossip), the Manxman (we’re back to star signs, and the old man shakes his head at the fate awaiting the ship), Queequeg (who consults his tattoos as though they were a reference book) and finally poor Pip.

Pip, broken by his experience (in Chapter 93) when Stubb nearly left him to die in the sea, recites what seems like nonsense. Stubb watches his ‘unearthly idiot face’ and Pip’s stream of  ‘crazy-witty’ thoughts babble on. What does this boy see in the coin, this boy who showed Ishmael that ‘man’s insanity is heaven’s sense’, the strange broken half-prophet of the Pequod?

How did it get there? And so they’ll say in the resurrection, when they come to fish up this old mast, and find a doubloon lodged in it, with bedded oysters for the shaggy bark. Oh, the gold! the precious, precious gold!—the green miser’ll hoard ye soon!

Visit mobydickbigread.com to listen to the readings. I’ll post my thoughts on chapters 100 to 106 here on Sunday,  29th December 2012. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

The project organisers ask that any donations for the Big Read go to the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society. Visit the WDC  webpage here.


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