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Marathons That Don't Require Sneakers

Mount Greylock from Herman Melville's study.
Courtesy of Martha Ackmann
Mount Greylock from Herman Melville's study.

Friends tell commentator Martha Ackmann that she has odd pastimes. One of them is participating in literary marathons. That's when great literary works are read out-loud communally all the way through --from first line to last -- and sometimes around-the-clock.

The Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst hosts a marathon reading of her 1,789 poems. I especially like taking the night shift. There’s something deliciously eerie about being in the poet’s house after-hours, sitting with a clutch of other enthusiasts, and reciting poems written over 150 years ago. 

There’s something profound, too, about hearing your own voice say the words — a feeling of insignificance and connection to the ages, at once.

This week I’ve got my eye on another literary marathon. This one out in Pittsfield, where the whole of Herman Melville's great novel, "Moby Dick," will be read over three and a half days and in the very place he wrote it.

When Melville named his residence Arrowhead for the many artifacts he found while turning over the soil, he couldn't have imagined readers gathering from all over New England to celebrate his work. He even had doubts about whether his epic tale of obsession would make it.

“I am halfway in the work,” he wrote a friend. “It will be a strange sort of book...; blubber is blubber, you know.”

The book made a powerful impact on American literature and today's readers visit Arrowhead, not only to see where the novel was composed, but also to stare out Melville’s study window.

There sits Herman Melville, his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne observed, “shaping out the gigantic conception of his white whale, while the gigantic shape of Greylock looms upon him..."

This week I don’t expect to be lucky enough to read the unforgettable first line of Moby Dick — “Call me Ishmael.” But maybe I'll snag the one where Ishmael describes why he so loves to set sail.

On the surface, the sentence is about whaling. But to me, it’s also about something else. It's about why people like me do crazy marathon readings and why literature matters.

At sea, Ishmael tells us, he's carried away, ideas float into his soul like phantoms, and — as Melville put it, great floodgates of the wonder-world swing open.

Martha Ackmann lives in Leverett, Massachusetts. She's working on a book about Emily Dickinson.

Find more information on Arrowhead reading.

Martha Ackmann is a journalist and author who writes about women who have changed America. Her essays and columns have appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.
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