Mark Twain said a classic book is a work that everyone wants to have read but no one actually reads. For many Angelenos, Herman Melville's Moby Dick is just such a classic. It's a book set in New England at a time when whaling was an enterprise and tattoos were terrifying. Melville's world is a stark contrast to contemporary L.A. — a place and time that could seem as alien to a reader as Ray Bradbury's Mars. And, admit it: You probably haven't read it.
But the Los Angeles Public Library believes that Moby Dick has great relevance for contemporary L.A. Last night at the Annenberg Community Beach House in Santa Monica, Moby, Mark Z. Danielewski, author of House of Leaves, and Colin Hanks joined the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Public Library to kick off a month-long celebration of Herman Melville's classic tale by reading chapters from the novel.
The new library program “What ever happened to Moby Dick?” asks readers across the city to reexamine the story of Captain Ahab and his obsession with the leviathan through a Southern California lens. Into early October, the library will hosts activities from Highland Park to Venice, Granada Hills to San Pedro, to see how Ishmael and Captain Ahab speak to a 21st century audience in Los Angeles.
“We read it differently because we live in Los Angeles,” President of the Library Foundation Ken Brecher tells a packed courtyard at the Marion Davies Guest House. “Maybe we will learn something about ourselves and our city in the process.”
If we're going to read classic literature in Los Angeles, it will almost certainly be mixed with guest appearances from artists and rock stars. Before the readings, Shepard Fairey, graphic designer and street artist known for OBEY GIANT, was spinning records when John Densmore, former drummer for The Doors, walked into the crowded room. Fairey said hello and quickly changed tracks to “Peace Frog” from The Doors' album Morrison Hotel.
Ironically, many people at the event admitted to having never read Moby Dick. City Librarian John Szabo says it's the novel that most people say they have read when they really haven't.
“I think Moby Dick calls you; it's a book that you read when you're ready,” said Danielewski, an acclaimed Los Angeles author. He's wearing a neon-pink sweatshirt with the zipper open. “It's not something you should read in school. There is a moment where you suddenly realize where you want to face those profound questions.”
So is it possible for Angelenos to connect with a 19th century tome, even if it is a famous work of literature?
“There is the literal translation with Southern California and the ocean,” said actor Hanks, standing next to Danielewski before the reading, “but there is something about the relationship people have with the city. It can seem convoluted at times. It can seem messy. It can overlap. It can seem to digress any number of ways. Just getting here from Los Feliz I digressed in a couple of different ways. The book has that.”
“The book is discursive,” added Danielewski, “and the book is constantly looking at what the whale is from every sort of angle… Moby Dick is concerned with how we define something, and L.A., too, is constantly trying to define itself and then redefine itself. So it's about finding identity.”
Not only can Moby Dick become a metaphor for Los Angeles, it has impacted the city and our musicians in surprising ways, too. For example, later that night, singer-songwriter and DJ Moby told the story of how his name changed from Richard Melville Hall to Moby. When he was born, Moby was such a runt of a baby that his father started calling him Moby because he was so small in contrast to the behemoth white whale. His father had no idea that the ironic play on Melville and the leviathan would stick years later.
After Moby, Hanks and Danielewski read from Moby Dick, Dhani Harrison and Thenewno2 play a short set for the crowd. With all the celebrities and rock stars, it was easy to forget this was a celebration for a city-wide reading of Herman Melville. It was as if Melville was a producer or a director, and he was somewhere out of the picture, waiting to walk down the stairs of the Marion Davies Beach House and join the party.
While the goal of the night was to bring people together and support the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, it's also the beginning of a way to think about how great American literature connects with our present. Looking at the whale in a new light can be revealing.
“There is a literal concern here,” Danielewski said. “How do we face the whale now? In the old days, whales seemed abundant and terrifying, something that could be killed haphazardly. But now we're in a completely different place. We recognize that this is an endangered species, and how do we face the prospect of seas so diminished.”
For more information on the library's events for “What ever happened to Moby Dick,” then please visit the Moby Dick page.
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