The Carnegie’s ‘Moby-Dick’ book club

‘Moby-Dick’ book club will bring the classic tale to life.

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Illustration of the final chase of Moby-Dick, I.W. Taber, 1902. —Via Wikimedia Commons

“Call me Ishmael.” There are likely only a handful of opening lines of a novel that are so iconic. And now is the time in these dark, cold winter months to abandon our “lite” beach reading for great literature. In this case, “Moby-Dick,” which you may have conquered or felt too daunted to even begin.

The Carnegie notes on its website that this is an opportunity to “experience Melville’s masterpiece during the bicentennial year of the writer’s birth.” The book club will “plumb its depths, explore the symbolism, and consider the humor of this remarkable chronicle of a white whale, the Pequod, and Captain Ahab.” Each meeting will feature a lively conversation led by Susan Larsen, a longtime island resident, Melville enthusiast, and Moby-Dick aficionado. And don’t let the book’s heft put you off. You will be taking it in, excuse the pun, in bite-sized pieces — about 150-200 pages per bi-monthly meeting.

The tale, of course, is narrated by the sailor Ishmael about the ship’s captain Ahab’s obsessive quest for revenge against the giant white sperm whale, Moby Dick, which previously bit off his leg at the knee. But the Encyclopedia Britannica points out that at its heart, the tale is an allegory of obsession, madness, tribulations, and beauty.

Perhaps less well known is that, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website, Melville was inspired by the real Capt. George Pollard whose ship, the Essex, was rammed by a sperm whale while on a two-year whaling expedition crisscrossing the Pacific. Captain and crew quickly abandoned the vessel thousands of miles from land, and their escape in leaky lifeboats began a horrific ordeal resulting in sickness, starvation, and cannibalism. The website says that “the name of the whale was also inspired by real-life events. In 1839, Melville read a story in a magazine about an albino sperm whale famed for its deadly attacks on whaling ships trying to hunt it down. This whale, killed off the coast of Chile near Mocha Island, was called Mocha Dick.”

The Carnegie’s book club evolved out of the informal group that came together in 2019. Melissa Kershaw, director of visitor services and programs, explains, “We all passed around several books that related to the Island and its maritime history — everything from Eric J. Dolin’s ‘Leviathan’ to Nathaniel Philbrick’s ‘Mayflower’ and Geraldine Brooks’ novel ‘Caleb’s Crossing.’ ‘Moby-Dick’ was among those books, and we all found so many connections to the novel that it generated lots of discussion. When we decided to remain open this winter, we thought it would be a great opportunity to offer a structured reading group for our winter community. An added bonus is the chance to share this classic American novel during the bicentennial year of the author’s birth.”

And the “Moby-Dick” book club will offer something another local book club might not. Larsen, who has read “Moby-Dick” multiple times and has made extensive study of both the novel and author Herman Melville, will offer an optional walking tour after each meeting to an historic site in downtown Edgartown that connects back to the book. “That will extend conversation and make connections between the novel and the Island and it’s maritime heritage,” Kershaw says. “Pairing the reading with historic sites will be especially evocative, I think. I’m also looking forward to bringing the old whaling days of the Vineyard to life in a new way.”

 

The club is free, and no registration is necessary. Read chapters 1 to 21 for the first meeting on Jan. 11, which will take place from 2 to 3 pm at the Carnegie. Additional dates include Jan. 25, Feb. 8 and  22, and March 14 and 28. Visit mvpreservation.org/events/moby-dick-book-club/ for details. The Carnegie is open every Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm, from Jan. 11 to March 28.