Marathon Reading Will Bring the White Whale to Life in Sag Harbor

Reading "Moby Dick" outside Canio's Books (Kathryn Szoka photo)
Reading “Moby Dick” outside Canio’s Books (Kathryn Szoka photo)

By Annette Hinkle

“Ship, ahoy! Hast thou seen the White Whale?”

So asked Captain Ahab of a fellow whaling ship in Herman Melville’s classic “Moby Dick.”

It’s a question that will be answered in Sag Harbor over the course of 25 hours this weekend when Canio’s Cultural Café presents a marathon reading of Melville’s novel to celebrate Canio’s Books 35th anniversary as well as Southampton Town’s 375th Anniversary.

This “Moby Dick” marathon, which runs from Friday to Sunday, harkens back to 1983, when Canio Pavone, founder of Canio’s Books, hosted the first reading of the novel at the book shop with a group of literary-minded Sag Harbor residents. In those days, readers stayed up through the night and took turns plowing through the voluminous tome, chapter by chapter, into the wee hours of the morning and on until dawn.

It was a tradition that for several years after defined this place, and for good reason. In the mid-19th century, Sag Harbor was one of the best known whaling ports in the world and it’s mentioned more than once in Melville’s novel — most famously after Queequeg, the tattooed Maori “savage” harpooner, witnesses the debauched ways of Christian men in Sag Harbor and vows to happily remain a pagan.

Truth be told, if you look past the yachts docked at the wharf and the fancy cars that line Main Street, Sag Harbor still looks an awful lot like it probably did back in Melville’s day. All that’s missing is the assembled masses of foreigners and miscreants who would have been populated the place while in port for a few days back then (though on certain summer days, that’s still an accurate portrait of the village).

A "Moby Dick" marathon at Canio's Books from the 1980s.
A “Moby Dick” marathon at Canio’s Books from the 1980s.

Which is as good a reason as any to explain why “Moby Dick” has come to represent this village in a way no other book has. Kathryn Szoka and Maryann Calendrille, who bought Canio’s Books back in 1999, recall that the last time a “Moby Dick” marathon was held in Sag Harbor it was 2002 and Canio’s Books and the John Jermain Memorial Library split the venue. With the anniversary of Southampton Town and Canio’s Books coinciding, Ms. Szoka and Ms. Calendrille felt it was high time to revive the tradition, with a few well considered adjustments.

This time around, instead of the traditional round the clock reading, the schedule will be far more civilized — noon to 9 p.m. on Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (or so) on Sunday followed by an after party at Canio’s Books.

Also new for this “Moby Dick” marathon is mobility, and the reading will travel to various Sag Harbor venues throughout the three days, from Canio’s to the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum, Bay Street Theater, the Old Whalers’ Church, the Eastville Community Historical Society and the John Jermain Memorial Library.

“Over the last two years or so, the cultural and artistic non-profits in the village have formed the Sag Harbor Cultural District,” explains Ms. Szoka. “A lot of the places we’re partnering with for the reading are part of that district and we thought it would be great fun to move to different locations and make it a true Sag Harbor event.”

“There are so many different aspects of community in the book,” adds Ms. Calendrille. “We thought it would be a great way to highlight the diversity of Sag Harbor and its points of interest. It should be fun.”

The marathon will be held in three-hour segments at each venue and the book will be moved from one location to the next in a something approaching a procession.

“Kathryn plans to parade around with a white whale,” says Ms. Calendrille.

“We wanted to have a harpoon from the Whaling Museum, but it’s kind of a lethal object,” adds Ms. Szoka.

Each participant taking part in the marathon (a total of 160 or so are needed) is invited to sign up for a selected hour and venue and will read aloud for 10 minutes. Participants will then sign the book near the portion they read and the book will be auctioned off during a silent auction at Sunday’s after-party. Book collectors take note: this is no second hand dog-eared paper back version of “Moby Dick.”

“It’s a special leather-bound commemorative volume with gilt edging,” notes Ms. Calendrille. “A real collectible.”

Among those scheduled to read over the course of the three days are poets Mark Doty and George Held, actors Sloane Shelton and Harris Yulin, writers Tom Clavin, Alan Furst, David Margolick, Susan Merrell, Joe Pintauro, Peter Boody and Carl Safina. In addition, six members of the theatrical troupe HITfest will read for an hour on Saturday night. Also, as part of its 375th anniversary, Southampton Town is encouraging the hamlets and villages within its borders to celebrate on specific weekends. This weekend it’s Sag Harbor’s turn, and Ms. Szoka and Ms. Calendrille felt it was a perfect time to resurrect the “Moby Dick” marathon. Southampton Town has helped to underwrite the event and Supervisor Anna Throne Holst will also take a turn as a reader.

To some, it may sound odd to create such a hallowed community event around a piece of literature, but it turns out when it comes to having an affinity for this particular novel, Sag Harbor is not alone. “Moby Dick” readings are something of a trend and held in big cities and small towns the world over. David Dowling, a lecturer of English at the University of Iowa, even documented the phenomenon in “Chasing the White Whale: The Moby-Dick Marathon; or, What Melville Means Today,” a book inspired by a reading at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in 2009.

There’s just something about this novel that seems to strike a chord in readers — even today.

“The book is an amazing tour de force. To hear the language out loud is a great way to take in the book and it lends itself to the phenomenon of the marathon,” explains Ms. Szoka. “As a great American classic, there’s something compelling about the characters, the foible of human nature and the morality tale of the book which appeals to us as much today as it did when Melville wrote it.”

“What’s so rich and what rewards rereadings of ‘Moby Dick’ is the way it grapples with the ‘big’ issues — man’s fate and freewill, questions of religion, nature, race, the limits of human knowledge and much more,” says Ms. Calendrille. “And yes, there are humorous moments within the tragic quest. And the language, the language of it is haunting.”

By the way, for those who find the prospect of sitting through a marathon of “Moby Dick” or reading the massive Melville novel on their own just too much, the ladies at Canio’s have a “novel” solution.

“We have a 12 page board book of ‘Moby Dick’ for infants” notes Ms. Calendrille.

The “Moby Dick” marathon starts and ends at Canio’s Books. Costumes are welcome for both listeners and readers and community members are encouraged to sponsor a chapter of the novel to support Canio’s Cultural Café. Sponsorship levels start at $100 (Ahab) and go up to $1,000 (Starbuck, which includes a cruise with Captain Anton Hagen aboard the Marlinspike). To sign up as a reader, email Canio’s with the day, time and location you prefer:, subject: MDM. 

Friday, June 12: 

12 to 3 p.m. Canio’s Books (290 Main Street)

3 to 6 p.m. Whaling Museum (200 Main Street) FULL

6 to 9 p.m. Canio’s Books

Saturday, June 13:

10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Bay Street Theater (Long Wharf) FULL

1 to 4 p.m. John Jermain Memorial Library (34 West Water Street) FULL 

4 to 7 p.m. Old Whalers’ Church (44 Union Street)

7 to 10 p.m. Canio’s Books

Sunday, June 14:

11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eastville Community Historical Society (139 Hampton Street)

2 to 5 p.m. Canio’s Books followed by the after-party