Every midwinter, on the first weekend of January, the Atlantic port-town of New Bedford on the Massachusetts coast hosts a reading marathon of the novel Moby-Dick, by American author Herman Melville. You sit and listen to the book read aloud from start to end for 26 hours. It seems hard to fathom why anyone would put themselves through such an ordeal. Not many venture to read the famed literary classic about a whale and a one-legged captain, let alone finish; it’s very long and dense. Fewer still, after all that effort, end up liking it. Yet those who do, I’m told, make up one of the most cult-like fandoms in English literature. I count myself among them, having read the book as a teenager in Pasir Ris, by the placid Johor Strait where the briny air stirs longing for adventure and escape.

Could I last the whole event, I wondered.

A half-day’s journey by road from New York, New Bedford was once the international whaling capital. In the nineteenth century, intrepid harpooners set out from its harbour scouring the seven seas to wage battle on those mighty mammals of the deep. Their prize: a waxy, amber-coloured liquid called sperm oil, found in the head of the sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus. Sperm oil was esteemed as a source of illumination prior to the rise of cheaper fuels like kerosene, as it produced a bright, odourless and smokeless flame. Fetching a high premium in the global market, it turned New Bedford into “the city that lit the world”.

It’s also where the mysterious protagonist of Moby-Dick—opening with the line “call me Ishmael”—begins his epic journey as a crewmember on board the Pequod, a whaling vessel. Little does he know that the ship is led by a tyrant, Captain Ahab, who’d had his leg bitten off by a sperm whale so large, white and fierce, that frightened sailors called it Moby-Dick. Consumed by mad rage, Ahab bends the Pequod’s crew to his quest for vengeance.

The Moby-Dick Marathon, appropriately held at the New Bedford Whaling Museum has been going on for 27 years. Salty Ng, a Singaporean artist (whom Jom profiled last year), made a collaborative work there in 2021 in response to the marathon, when it was briefly held online due to the pandemic. (The tagline for that Zoom edition was lifted from the novel: “As for me, I am tormented by an everlasting itch for all things remote.”)

New Bedford’s Moby-Dick Marathon isn’t the only one, however, as others have been organised by museums and libraries across the United States. But the one in New Bedford feels special as several key chapters of the novel are set there and mention its landmarks. It also commemorates the anniversary of Herman Melville’s own historical departure from the town in 1841 on board a whaling ship called the Acushnet. That experience inspired Moby-Dick.

Jetty in the port of New Bedford. Photographs are writer's own

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