11 Feb 2014

Moby-thon at The Nantucket Atheneum

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.” These are words from the opening paragraph of Herman Melville’s legendary Moby Dick as recited by Nantucket’s own, Nat Philbrick to kick-off the Third Annual Moby-Dick Marathon sponsored last weekend by the Nantucket Atheneum and the Nantucket Historical Association.  Ninety-five additional readers took their turn orating the epic sea tale which references Nantucket and her whaling history.

As I quietly slid into an empty seat in the Great Hall of the Atheneum on Saturday afternoon, I felt a bit like an intruder into someone’s life drama. The storytellers of the “Moby-thon” were animated and believable and immediately drew me into the storyline. Words and sentences that seemed ironic or confusing as written words on a page, conveyed their deep meaning, emotional torment and in many cases humor when recited in passionate context. The atmosphere was casual with listeners welcome to come and go at their leisure or settle in for the twenty-five hour marathon. Many people were reading along with their personal copies of the classic…REAL books, not the electronic versions…while others took notes, some sat quietly listening intently and still others multi-tasked…knitting or crocheting as the plot unfolded.

Although I love to read books of all genres, I confess I’ve never been particularly drawn to the classics. But listening to the dramatic and complex tale this weekend has spurred my interest. I love Melville’s use of big words….nudging me to stop “skulking” and begin “ruminating” about why I should be thinking outside my “insular” surroundings, ignoring the “tempestuous” winds of change and stop fearing “leviathans.” I left the Atheneum feeling smarter somehow, empowered by Melville’s written word and connected in a new way to the island we all love.

Nantucket has been the setting for many a fictional character, but also for thousands of real life characters who arrived on Nantucket looking for opportunity. Those first few lines in Moby Dick bring to mind countless stories I’ve heard over the years of people with “little or no money” in their purse or wallet and “nothing to interest” them on shore who made their way to Nantucket…some for a season and some for a lifetime.

The next time you find yourself at a Nantucket social function be sure to ask fellow guests to share their Nantucket story. You’re likely to hear accounts as varied as ancestors who were local ship captains… to folks (like me!) who arrived on the island for a four day vacation and never left.  If you’re curious to hear an audible accounting of the lives of Ishmael, Ahab and Queequeg, plan to attend next year’s Moby Dick Marathon where you can pull up a chair next to fellow literary lovers and let Melville carry you away.

Whale tales…

Shellie Dunlap

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