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Moby Dick strikes Old Capitol Museum with annual public reading

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A public reading of Moby Dick will take place today through Thursday at the Old Capitol. With the communal reading, people can begin to see the art of reading out loud.

By Madison Lotenschtein

madison-lotenschtein@uiowa.edu 

The Iowa City Book Festival is a celebration that remains true to its title. Hundreds of bookworms come out of their nooks and take part in this annual tradition. The yearly public book reading, however, is a special ingredient that gives the festival an additional spice.

From today through Thursday, a public reading of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick will take place on the steps of the Old Capitol. On Thursday, readers and listeners will meet underneath the large whale skeleton in Mammal Hall to finish the novel. A fitting end to the reading about a great white whale.

The novel begins with Ishmael, a young sailor who intends to go to sea as a whaler. Aboard the ship, he meets his mysterious captain, Ahab, who then swears to hunt and kill the sperm whale that took his leg. Will the crew be victorious in its attempts of murdering the vicious creature?

“It’s a novel about our relationship with an unyielding divinity and a struggle against our own hubris,” said Anna Barker, the event organizer. “Would you tempt a force greater and far more overbearing than you, after getting a severe warning the first time you tried it?”

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One person can’t possibly read a novel aloud for 25 hours. The solution to this problem is simple: Whoever wants to read, may sign up for a 20-minute time slot. Undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, community members in Iowa City, published local writers of Iowa City, and senior citizens are welcome to read and touch the minds of the listeners. Once their 20 minutes are up, the next person reads.

Oral storytelling has been lost to a majority of Western society. With literacy rates being so high, most find it unnecessary to read out loud, that is, unless you have a younger sibling or two, or are a parent. The loss of communal reading is unfortunate, because reading out loud is in many ways a performance of its own.

“There’s a reason Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep get hired to narrate audiobooks, as opposed to the average Joe,” said Nick Dolan, an event co-organizer. “Reading a great book to a small circle of people is a means of recognizing the power of oral storytelling while flexing your own storytelling muscles in the process.”

In the United States, we tend to encase the thought of storytelling as “childish.” Most students have not been read to since they were introduced to The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  The committed community around these readings begs to differ.

“The reactions range from puzzled stares to smiles or people just stopping to listen for a while,” said John Kenyon, the director of the Iowa City Book Festival.

In years past, books such as War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Don Quixote have been read aloud on the Old Capitol steps.

What’s the prerequisite for these lucky novels? Length is prominent feature, as well as the novels’ classic plots, bright themes, and vibrant characters. Timelessness is another key factor.

Moby-Dick is Melville’s heroic attempt to both rage against and come to terms with the indifference of the universe in the face of human suffering; his methods of doing so are show tunes, whaling metaphors, and thinly veiled homoeroticism,” Dolan said. “You laugh, you cry, you learn way more than you ever wanted to know about the whaling industry in the 19th century. What more could you want from a novel?”

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