Some 161 years after its first publication, Herman Melville's Moby Dick is proving popular in a very modern format. Hosted by Peninsula Arts at Plymouth University, the Moby Dick Big Read is a marathon audio-visual rendition of the great American novel by a glittering roster of readers. Contributors include Tilda Swinton, Sir David Attenborough, Simon Callow, John Waters, Neil Tennant, Will Self, Benedict Cumberbatch, Fiona Shaw, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, China Miéville, Blake Morrison, Rick Stein and Cerys Matthews, each of whom is reading one of the 136 chapters, in sequence. The readings are available to download free. So far, 460,000 people have listened.
The Moby Dick Big Read is co-curated by Philip Hoare, author of the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize-winning Leviathan or, The Whale, and the acclaimed artist, Angela Cockayne.
Tomorrow's reader will be David Cameron. The Blagger is told that his section – Chapter 30 The Pipe – was specially selected so as not to create any "elephant traps" for the Prime Minister. Chapters on whaling might appear to condone hunting; others mentioning "Muslim empires" would have their own problematic reverberations. Chapter 30 was deemed to be controversy free. It does, however, involve a man deciding to give up smoking.
Cameron will be relieved not to have been asked to read Chapter 94, "A Squeeze of the Hand", which describes the business of squeezing the lumps in the congealed whale blubber back into fluid: "Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules… Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever!" This is read by the playwright Tony Kushner.
It may be considered a great American novel, but the book was conceived during Melville's visit to London in 1849. He stayed in rooms on Craven Street in Charing Cross, now marked by a blue plaque
"I have written a blasphemous book", said Melville in 1851, "and I feel as spotless as the lamb".
Moby Dick is narrated by Ishmael, a sailor who voyages on the whaleship Pequod under Captain Ahab. He soon discovers that Ahab's secret mission is revenge on the ferocious sperm whale, Moby Dick. The book explores the nature of evil and the existence of God along with being very knowledgeable about the 19th-century whaling industry. It is thought to have been inspired by two well-known, contemporary stories of giant whales that attacked ships.
Last year, the American Book Review's Top 100 best first lines in novels rated Moby Dick's "Call me Ishmael" at No 1. (No 2 was from Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.")
Every high street has a reminder of Melville's masterpiece, named after Ahab's first mate: Starbuck.
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