Lit-lubbers gather for a roving ‘Moby-Dick’ reading by Paul Dano, Sarah Vowell, and more

Saturday night's reading at Molasses Books. (Joshua Blake Simpson)
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When writer and teacher Polly Bresnick was, in her own words, a “wee undergrad,” at Bard College, she staged an overnight marathon reading of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick in her “teeny tiny, crappy” apartment the Hudson Valley.

“I think at the most there were 12 people, like, at the peak,” she recalled, standing outside Housing Works on Sunday afternoon. “My housemate made spaghetti for people in the middle of the night and it was just me and one other person late at night and we were lying on our backs with the books over our heads.”

On Sunday, another marathon reading—New York City’s first—of Bresnick’s “favorite book of all time,” had just concluded. Bresnick had planned and run the event, which was spread across three days and three different venues, with Amanda Bullock, events coordinator for AIDS advocacy group Housing Works. After launching at 6 p.m. on Friday at Word Bookstore in Greenpoint, the reading moved first to Housing Works, then to Molasses Books in Bushwick on Saturday, before returning to Soho and ending there.

Throughout, crowds were anything but sparse. When the novelist, critic and television personality Touré read the final sentence of the epilogue with his son, a child of no more than five or six, wrapped around his father’s leg—“It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan”—he was greeted by a cathartic round of applause from close to 100 audience members.

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Moby-Dick, or The Whale, is an account of obsession: Captain Ahab’s obsession with the titular whale; and the narrator, Ishmael’s, obsession with recounting the story of the disastrous journey Ahab and his crew, Ishmael among them, take to capture it. And despite its length, its frequent digressions onto topics as unpromising as whaling law and the size of whales throughout the ages, and its thorny syntax, the book has become a favorite for live reading treatments. The New Bedford Whaling Museum—located in the town from which the doomed ship, the Pequod, sets sail—has held an annual marathon reading for the past 16 years.

“Obviously we would do something crazy with this book about a crazy person,” Bullock said.

The more than 160 people who participated in the “crazy” event read 10 minutes each over a 25-hour period. Participants ranged from the famous—actor Paul Dano kicked things off with the instantly recognizable, “Call me Ishmael”; author and This American Life contributor Sarah Vowell read at Housing Works on Saturday morning; authors Rick Moody and Jonathan Ames read at Molasses Books later the same day—to the lesser-known, including friends of the organizers, and Moby-Dick enthusiasts who had emailed or tweeted at Bullock and Bresnick, hoping to be included. The listening experience shifted from venue to venue.

At Word, where the small basement room was so crowded by 6 p.m. that latecomers crouched on the stairs, the mood was anticipatory; more than at the other venues, it felt like an event, a place to see and be seen. North Brooklyn's (mostly) bespectacled residents paraded down the stairs wrapped in peacoats and scarves, their cheeks pink from the fall chill. Tables propped up bottles of Miller High Life and cans of PBR, and a cauldron of clam chowder hauled from Littleneck in Gowanus (the restaurant's co-owner Aaron Lefkove was slated to read a section on New England's famous broth). Paul Giannone, the owner and head pizzaiolo at Paulie Gee's, located just two blocks from Word, stopped by with a few pies for the crowd. One woman brought a small dog with her; she didn’t seem to be listening but took a number of pictures of the animal—who was, admittedly, adorable—among the crowd before decamping.

Molasses Books hosted to the longest continuous reading—between 4 p.m. and midnight on Saturday—and by 10, the room was alternately reverent and punchy. At times, being tucked snugly into the cozy bookstore with the cold, black night just beyond, felt a bit like being on a whaling ship in the middle of an ocean. Other times—like when a handful of people tentatively popped the tabs on their beers all at the same time, prompting the reader at that moment, Lauren Leto, to break character and cheerful announce, “You can just do it!” amidst giggles—the scene resembled any other Saturday night gathering of tipsy young literary Brooklynites. This impression was bolstered by the presence of Jonathan Ames, whose small, light-blue knit cap and bandaged left hand may or may have been part of a costume.

At Housing Works on Sunday morning the ambiance was friendly but serious—akin to that of an educational picnic. At a table in the center of the bookstore, a slight, bespectacled boy no older than 10 sat, following along intently with the reader on the stage before him. Around 11:30, a group calling themselves the “Pequod Players,” briefly turned the café into a theater during Chapter 40, “Midnight, Forecastle,” which is written like a script. Major characters were positioned on ladders or on the bookstore’s second level, while other cast members, concealed among the audience members in pea coats and cable-knit sweaters, remained camouflaged until they leapt up and began singing.

“In New York City apparently a lot of people dress like 19th century whalemen,” noted Bullock.

Bullock (pictured with Bresnick, at right), for one, was pleased with how free people felt to laugh during the reading. In fact, one of the surprises of the marathon was how hilarious Moby-Dick—often viewed as a dull, hulking tome—turns out to be. From a slapstick early scene in which Ishmael attempts to find lodging in New Bedford before setting sail and ends up sharing a bed in a crowded inn with a cannibal named Queequeg—in the morning, their embrace is described as “matrimonial”—who will later be his ship-mate, to a purposely botched translation that allows the crew of the Pequod to trick some “Crappoes of Frenchmen” out of valuable sperm whale ambergris, there were chuckles every couple of pages.

Not that the audience ignored the more serious resonances of some of the book’s passages. Late in the evening at Molasses, the line “There is no folly of the beast of the earth that is not outdone by the madness of men,” prompted a quiet, “you said it,” from a member of the audience.

On Sunday afternoon, as the marathon ended, Bullock congratulated four people who had stuck it out for the entire 25 hours: one, a tall, trim man with a neat white beard, closely cropped white hair, and round, clear plastic-framed glasses, raised both arms over his head in triumph. It was Paul Bresnick, organizer Polly Bresnick’s father.

On Friday, Bresnick had recalled her father spending hours in the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum and coming home “with his eyes kind of rolling around in head and quoting his favorite passages.” Father and daughter recently gotten matching tattoos, copies of the doubloon described in Chapter 99. Though the organizers didn’t take requests from readers for specific passages, Paul Bresnick did end up reading that chapter late on Saturday night. His wife, Polly’s mother, got to read too. “I realized that that was probably the first time I had heard her read out loud since I was a little girl and she read to me in bed,” she said.

Leaving the marathon, one felt not the exhaustion of so many words, but the urge to keep reading.

Top photo by Joshua Blake Simpson; all other photos by Justin Taylor.