Back in the days when whales stove ships and not the other way around (of course, the men on those ships had harpoons, but that’s another story), Herman Melville wrote a book. Mid-19th-century critics were not unanimous in their praise; even some of the author’s friends were wishy-washy. (You can still hear Hawthorne muttering, “Well, Herman, it has potential . . . but don’t you think it’s a bit derivative of J.N. Reynolds?”) Later, critics who saw the book rescued from oblivion took pains to slam it (“He writes the most execrable English,” wrote Leonard Woolf in 1923). Still, Moby-Dick has flourished in our national mythology as a metaphor for ambition, avarice, perseverance, and man’s relationship to the sea and the creatures who inhabit it. Reading all the way through it is a dizzying, life-changing thrill.
Not that I’ve actually done it. I mean, I’ve skimmed it, and read sections of it thoroughly (most recently, “The Sperm Whale’s Head-Contrasted View”), but I don’t know that my eyes have yet met every single one of its 500-some pages, and certainly not all within the same year. But before the ocean runs out of whales and rising sea levels bury my home and hurricanes batter Santa Monica, I’d like to say I did. Just once. Perhaps even in one single weekend.
Venice native Tim Rudnick runs a museum-without-walls called the Venice Oceanarium. Every year for the past 14, he’s hosted a two-day reading of Moby-Dickon the rocky beach near the end of Windward Avenue in Venice. It starts at 7 a.m. on a Saturday and ends at 10 p.m. Sunday. Throughout, people trade off reading about Ishmael and Queequeg and Ahab and Starbuck and the pyrrhic pursuit of the mighty white whale. When exactly this will happen in 2008, no one can be sure at this point; the Venice Oceanarium is, for now, an inchoate thing, as elusive as that whale. Rumors on the street indicate that Rudnick still wants to turn the institution into a brick-and-mortar building for a half-million dollars, but for now it exists only as Rudnick and a table at the beach, teaching kids that Venice isn’t just for skateboarding.
The best way to find out about the next Moby-Dickweekend reading, which can occur anytime from June to November with only a few weeks’ warning, is to lurk around Abbot Kinney Boulevard toward summertime, where you’ll be sure to find a flier. By that time, the Oceanarium might even have a Web site and working phone number.
(If this sounds too mysterious and you think I’m making it up, you can see a video for yourself here: www.genwi.com/play/1663075.)