I’m terrible at listening to audio books – my mind wanders, I get distracted and eventually I lose track of the story. And, I read Moby Dick in college – at best a murky experience of total intimidation and momentary delight.
But somehow, Moby Dick Big Read (at www.mobydickbigread.com) available one easily digestible chapter at a time starting on September 16, makes “The Great American Novel” fascinating, approachable and somehow cool.
In other words – I’m hooked!
It doesn’t hurt that actress Tilda Swinton utters the famous first line, “I am Ishmael” in her reading of Chapter One.
Each of the subsequent chapters (there are 135 total) are read by the famous and not-so-famous, including Stephen Fry, David Attenborough, John Waters, Simon Callow, British Prime Minister David Cameron, writers, fishermen, scholars, schoolchildren and others.
Each chapter is also accompanied by an original piece of art created by an established or emerging contemporary artist relating (sometimes loosely) to the theme of the chapter.
Despite the differing voices, accents, genders and skill of the readers, I haven’t found the story to be too disjointed. In fact, each chapter, as written by Melville, seems to stand on its own – even more so with a distinct voice attached.
Some readers are better than others at bringing the dense language and charismatic characters to life (actors and performers have an obvious advantage). However, I found Simon Callow’s reading of “The Sermon” to be kind of wet – I imagined spittle flying around the recording booth. But I could listen to Stephen Fry read the telephone book all day long and Maori writer Witi Ihimaera’s sing-song recounting of QueeQueg’s history in Chapter 12 almost lulled me to sleep.
I do have one complaint: I can’t easily find information on the readers and artists involved in Moby Dick Big Read. I want to click on the names and find a photo and bio on each contributor instead of having to troll Google for details (who is Neil Tennant? Oh yeah – the lead singer of the Pet Shop Boys; never heard of Mama Tokus but she is awesome!)
You might wonder, as I did, why so many of the voices are British.
Moby Dick Big Read grew out of a 2011 symposium and exhibition entitled “Dominion,” presented by Angela Cockayne, artist, and Philip Hoare, author of “Leviathan, or, the Whale,” at Plymouth University on the southwest coast of England.
In addition, in a podcast interview with The Guardian newspaper, Philip Hoare outlines the connection between Moby Dick and Great Britain:
“Moby Dick wasn’t appreciated until the 1920s by modernists, by people like Auden, D.H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf — that’s what revived it. Moby Dick owes its reputation to Britain.”
And so, once again, Britain raises up Moby Dick from the depths and makes it relevant again.
If you’ve read the novel or have always wanted to read it, I encourage you to take a listen to Moby Dick Big Read. Curl up on the couch with your computer or your ipod or stick it in the cloud and you will find yourself in the company of Ishmael, Queequeg and Captain Ahab on the tilting decks of the Pequod in search of the white whale.
And, if you’re like me, you won’t be able to do anything else but sit and listen.