Monday, January 18, 2016


Getty Image, via Huffington Post
Illustration from a 1956 Dutch edition of Moby Dick
I usually have the privilege of taking students to the coffeelands of Nicaragua each January, and I was disappointed not to be able to do so this year. I plan to continue those annual trips, and so for now I consider being home the first weekend of January to be an anomaly.

My disappointment was assuaged not only by the opportunity to spend some extra time with friends and family, but also by the privilege of participating in a special literary event in New Bedford near our new second home (speaking of privilege).

We enjoy quite a few connections to New Bedford, such as the amazing Zeiterion Theater where we are members and have seen a great variety of great performers. Most of our other connections, though, have something or other to do with the whaling heritage of the city and my active membership in Whaling City Rowing, which has been mentioned in a variety of contexts on this blog. The image above shows what we do on a regular basis in the harbor, though without whales and without harpoons, and without quite as much froth on the seas!

The privilege to which I refer in the title of this post was the opportunity to participate in an event at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, which we joined when we purchased our home nearby (and where I hosted a geography conference about 15 years ago).

The museum hosts a marathon reading of Moby Dick each January, and we knew that it was kind of a big deal. This year, knowing we'd both be in the area -- with a place to sleep nearby -- we decided to sign up, and learned just what a big deal it is. When the event is announced in November, 150 opportunities to read 10-minute passages are taken within the first hour. So we were not able to get on the main stage.

But the 20th anniversary read included something new and even more special -- an abridged reading in Portuguese. Sponsored by the museum and by the Portuguese Consul, a special edition of the novel was prepared by Pedro Alves to be read in just four hours. Members of the community -- especially among the many of Azorean descent or birth -- were invited to read the abridged version in five-minute increments The idea was to recognize not only the whaling heritage of the region, but the role of Azorean and Cape Verdean mariners in that heritage.

Although Portuguese speakers are common in greater New Bedford, relatively few have studied it formally, and few of them were aware of the opportunity to read this new edition. For these reasons, I was able to secure a spot among the 48 readers for this first-ever Portuguese mini-marathon reading. The organizers told me my time slot and how to estimate my place in the book. I practiced reading several chapters aloud, but focused on "O Pulpito" ("The Pulpit"), which is a vivid description of the setting for the sermon Ishmael would hear before embarking on his voyage. Seaman's Bethel -- across the street from the Whaling Museum -- inspired the chapter, and its pulpit was later altered to look like the ship's prow described by Melville. 

So when we gathered beneath the half-scale model whaleship for the reading, I read along intently as the first dozen readers -- including the Consul himself -- took five-minute turns reading. I wanted to be sure that I would be on the right page when my turn -- number 13 -- came around. I was also grateful for the introduction, from which I learned that I was not the only nervous member of this crew. Others might stumble here and there -- and a couple did -- because the purpose was not flawless delivery, but rather a celebration of the Portuguese language.

I was pleased that when my turn came, we were in exactly the spot for which I was most prepared, and I read O Pulpito with aplomb, if not perfection. I was inspired by the whole experience to re-read the entire novel, this time in Portuguese. I am starting with the abridged version (of which I had read only the first 1/4) and will then tackle the full version, which the organizers generously made available to us.

In subsequent days, I was not surprised to find news of the event on local Facebook pages, but I was very pleasantly surprised to see it covered by Huffington Post, and to see my own face -- along with Pam's -- in the background of a photo in the coverage by O Jornal of Fall River.
State Rep. António F.D. Cabral, at left, and Portuguese Consul Pedro Carneiro in New Bedford
 with his sons sitting in the audience.
Image: O Jornal

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