Call me Ishmael

I have been on a literary odyssey, across the salty spray of the high seas and deep into the finely dissected belly of a beast.

The Moby Dick Big Read is a bold and inspiring online project developed at Plymouth University. It has been an omnipresent part of my existence for 135 days.

The problem: Herman Melville’s classic novel is a seemingly inaccessible tome which is unattractive to most mere-mortal readers.

The aim: to bring this leviathan to the masses

The solution: (1) Sign up 135 fans of the novel including writers, celebrities, musicians, scientists, zoologists, able seamen and er…the prime minister. (2) Record unique audio of each fan exclusively narrating one of the 135 chapters. (3) Sequentially release said chapters to the public on a daily basis for their instant gratification or for future downloadable pleasure. (4) Commission or carefully select 135 artworks to accompany each exclusive audio – from watercolours to stop motion footage, from sculptures to performance art.

The result: a colossal audio-visual feast that brought the whaleship’s exploits into our hearts and our homes.

Personal highlights included the mighty Stephen Fry divulging chapter 10’s homosexual overtones; Cerys Matthews’s gorgeous chapter 132 “The Symphony”, a reading that stops you in your tracks and forces your eyes to close; Benedict Cumberbatch and Simon Callow talentedly tackled chapters 58 and 9 respectively; Sir David Attenborough’s chapter 105 and Rick Stein’s chapter 64 could have been taken from today’s tv highlights which shows, just like most of the chapters, that this is a 150 year old book with eternally prevailing themes; finally, David Rothenburg’s controversial chapter 79 was remarkable for his experimental and refreshing musical take on the work, complete with haunting bass clarinet and sperm whale sounds.

Whilst not all of the readers were natural narrators, each new voice brought a fresh perspective on the Pequod’s men, with a new accent for Ahab or a new angle on the ocean. It was a great reminder of the beauty of verbal storytelling. Spanning 20 weeks, with chapters ranging from 1 minute to 1 hour, I started to feel the tumults of my own life reflected in the mercurial story-lines  It was satisfying knowing I was simultaneously sharing in this serialised sensation with my friend, Emma, and the rest of the readers / listeners of the world. We have now reached the end of our voyage but I’d still recommend it to be enjoyed after the event too; you can download the delights here for free:

Having obsessed in the hunt for the white whale, I was left bereft at the project’s demise. The daily dose of storytelling captivated me for so long that it’s absence has left a gaping lacuna in my lunch break. I want to digest more monstrous masterpieces and so I take up the reigns of my next literary crusade, with Ulysses on audio download.


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