‘Moby-Dick’ Marathon — Born at Canio’s — Has Become a Cultural Phenomenon

Gloria Primm Brown reading "Moby-Dick at Eastville. Courtesy photo

The “Moby-Dick” Marathon dates back to 1983, its earliest participants reading chapter after chapter of Herman Melville’s magnum opus as they burned the midnight oil, often turning the final page as the sun rose, all from the comfort of Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor.

The Sag Harbor bookshop was the birthplace of what would be come a cultural phenomenon, launching “Moby-Dick” read-a-thons across the globe — all aboard the whaling ship Pequod, as Captain Ahab hunts down the eponymous white whale that claimed his leg.

This year, in honor of Melville’s 200th birthday, Canio’s marathon is bigger — and more dramatic — than ever.

“We’re really excited. This is gonna be the best marathon that we’ve done,” Canio’s co-owner Kathryn Szoka said. “We’re so looking forward to celebrating Melville’s 200thanniversary, to celebrating great literature in Sag Harbor with new additions to the program that we hope will bring more people to the different locations to see Melville’s words really acted out, almost in play form.”

Since the event’s inception, each participant has traditionally read from the novel for 10 minutes — no more, no less — before passing it off to the next, until the book is finished.

This year, there are two major exceptions to that rule: Alec Baldwin and Harris Yulin.

On Friday, June 7, they will each take their place in front of the 136-chapter tome at the Old Whalers’ Church and read a selection — Baldwin from Chapters 10 through 13, and Yulin as Father Mapple in Chapter Nine, accompanied by the Choral Society of the Hamptons.

New York State Assemblyman and Sag Harbor native Fred W. Thiele Jr. reading at Canio’s.

“There is actually a chapter called ‘The Sermon,’ and we will have Harris be the pastor and another person will read the sections of the chapter that are not actually spoken by Father Mapple, so it will be a bit of a reenactment there,” Szoka said. “It’s going to be thrilling to have it in the church, as Melville would have envisioned, I think, as he ecstatically wrote the words of that chapter.”

In preparing for any role, Yulin said he tries not to approach them with any preconceived notions. The same is true of Father Mapple, he said.

“I don’t think about these things, I just do them,” he said. “Not too much thought is required. Thought, sometimes, gets in the way — where one can over-think. But the writing is such that it calls forth to do certain things. It just calls forth, like a good play. It just calls forth things in you and that’s pretty simple, really, sort of in a complex way.”

The moment-to-moment writing is what lends “Moby-Dick” to a marathon reading every year, its elements of classic mythology — a rebel to the established order, the heroes, the nemesis, and an appeal to a higher power — keeping listeners on the edges of their seats, whether they’ve heard the story once or 100 times, he said.

“It’s like doing Shakespeare. One goes and sees Shakespeare time and time again — or maybe one doesn’t, but one would like to, if it were done well,” he said. “If it’s done badly, you don’t want to see it. But this participation of the community in a great work, which is very familiar because of its history as a whaling center, it all seems to fit. And the involvement of the community in it is quite wonderful.”

Radio personality Bonnie Grice reading at Canio’s Books.

The marathon will kick off at Canio’s Books on Friday, June 7, from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m., with featured readings by founder Canio Pavone and Sag Harbor author Susan Merrell, before moving to the Old Whalers’ Church from 3 to 6:45 p.m. The read-a-thon will move back to the bookstore at 7 p.m., for a performance by Josh Gladstone as Captain Ahab in Chapter 36, and an enactment of the Chapter 40 “Sailors’ Play,” directed by Bill Burford of Bloodstone Theatrical.

“The book really cries out to be heard out loud. It’s great to listen to, in addition to actually reading the words on the page,” Szoka said. “One of the reasons why we do the marathon is we want people to be reintroduced to the classics and see how they speak to our society and our culture today.

“It is an attempt to let people who haven’t yet read it — or, let’s say, have started it and gotten to the chapters where he describes whales in excruciating detail, and just couldn’t continue — to have another chance to really get what isso brilliant about the book.”

Over the course of 26 hours, the remainder of the novel will unfold on Saturday and Sunday, June 8 and 9, at various locations throughout the village, drawing upwards of 170 readers annually. For the first time, small portions of the book will be read in Italian, German and Spanish, a nod to the international crew onboard.

“We don’t do the full marathon in terms of going overnight,” Szoka said. “There’s a lot of reasons for that, but one of the primary reasons is we want as many people as possible to participate, and when we did it overnight, there was a core group, but there weren’t many people at 3 a.m.”

Nevertheless, Szoka is there for every single reading, and every single moment of action, suspense, monotony, hilarity, tedium and brilliance.

“It’s fantastic and, yes, we’re exhausted at the end. But we’re thrilled, too,” she said. “It’s really hard to describe how you feel about it, but there’s a certain alchemy that occurs between the brilliance of Melville’s writing, the inclusiveness of the community, many voices speaking, and being at different locations. It’s a rich, rich feeling of embodying culture in the moment — right now, in the 20thcentury, in Sag Harbor. From our point of view, it’s bringing out the best of what cultural Sag Harbor has to offer.”

For over 150 years, “Moby-Dick” has remained a pinnacle of American literature, Szoka said, even more so during times of crisis and strife. It is no mystery why she finds the Melville classic particularly poignant and relevant today, she said.

“The idea of a mad captain bringing his countrymen to their demise through a mad search resonates quite clearly with what’s happening in our world today, and it’s also why the book, which initially kind of bombed, had a resurgence around World War I, because people started to see how much of what Melville was writing pertained to the events of their day,” she said. “That’s what marks great literature — it’s of the moment, but it’s also eternal, and Melville delivers on that.”

The 2019 “Moby-Dick” Marathon Reading will be held from Friday, June 7, through Sunday, June 9, at various locations throughout Sag Harbor Village. Proceeds will benefit the bookstore’s educational non-profit, Canio’s Cultural Café. For more information, call (631) 725-4926 or visit caniosculturalcafe.org.

“Moby-Dick” Marathon Schedule – June 7 to 9

Canio’s Books co-founder Kathryn has one goal for the upcoming “Moby-Dick” Marathon reading, this year from Friday, June 7, to Sunday, June 9.

“We want people to come, to listen, to love Melville and to walk out the doors feeling really psyched about how great art can lift the spirits and open the mind,” she said.

The schedule, subject to change, is as follows:

Friday, June 7

12:30 to 2:30 p.m.: Canio’s Books, featuring Canio Pavone and Susan Merrell

3 to 6:45 p.m.: Old Whalers’ Church, featuring Alec Baldwin, Harris Yulin, organist Walter Klauss and the Choral Society of the Hamptons

7 to 10 p.m.: Canio’s Books, featuring Josh Gladstone and Bill Burford with Bloodstone Theatrical

Saturday, June 8

10 a.m. to 12:45 p.m.: Sag Harbor Whaling & Historical Museum

1 to 4:45 p.m.: John Jermain Memorial Library

5 to 11 p.m.: Canio’s Books

Sunday, June 9

10:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m.: Eastville Community & Historical Society

1 p.m. to 5 p.m., or later: Canio’s Books, followed by an after party

To get in the Melville mood, the John Jermain Memorial Library will screen John Huston’s classic 1956 “Moby-Dick,” starring Gregory Peck, Richard Basehart and Orson Welles, on Thursday, May 30, at 6:30 p.m.

Additionally, Canio’s Books will host a pre-marathon warm-up reception for artist Robert Carioscia’s whaling prints, on Thursday, June 6, from 5 to 6:30 p.m.

To sign up for a reading, email caniosculturalcafe@gmail with “MDM Reader” in the subject line. Include the day and a three-hour reading window.

For further information, call (631) 725-4926 or visit caniosculturalcafe.org.