Three Moby Dicks of the Internet Age

A couple of years ago, I developed a fascination with Moby Dick, thanks to three creative versions of the book that couldn’t have existed without the Internet. What I knew about the novel before then was just what you learn from American pop culture – white whale, Call me Ishmael, obsessed one-legged captain, etc. And I’d seen the Gregory Peck movie in a hotel room twentysomething years ago. But that was it – the book loomed as an edifice I had no interest in climbing.

The novel had not been in my consciousness for many years, when I saw the debut article from Clickhole go by in my Twitter feed. Seeing the headline “The Time I Spent On A Commercial Whaling Ship Totally Changed My Perspective On The World” made me think “They didn’t, did they?” And, sure enough, they did:

The Time I Spent On A Commercial Whaling Ship Totally Changed My Perspective On The World

This clickbait article is the entire text of the novel. For whatever reason, perhaps just because I found the idea so funny, I started reading it. And what I discovered was an approachable, entertaining voice that I enjoyed. The book moved to the “read this one day” category. (Alas, that day never comes for many books.)

A while later, I was working on an emoji-related project. (These things happen at Google.) After we launched, I was looking for gifts for the team and I came across Emoji Dick; or 🐳. Emoji Dick is a crowdsourced and Kickstarter-funded translation of the novel into, well, emoji. For example, the famous first line is rendered as “☎️👨🏻⛵️🐳👌.” You can argue with the translations – and good luck to anyone trying to read the book in emoji only – but it’s an impressive effort. And I thought that the book, along with some pillows, would be the perfect way to say thank you to the team:

Emoji pillows and copies of Emoji Dick

Around the same time, I came across a mention of the Moby Dick Big Read, a 2011 podcast of all 136 chapters of Moby Dick. Each chapter is read by a different actor, writer, or scholar and each is accompanied by a piece of art from a different artist, all made available for free. So I started listening. And I was hooked.

The individual readers vary a lot in quality, but the best give riveting performances. I’d like to call out four of my favorites:

Tilda Swinton’s Loomings, (Chapter 1) immediately drew me in. Her voice is haunting and philosophical, almost eternal, and the egotism of Ishmael is right at the surface.

Simon Callow gives The Sermon (Chapter 9) as a thundering, fire and brimstone sermon.

John Cleave reads The Quarter-Deck (Chapter 36), where we first meet Ahab and the s**t gets real. Both the text and the reading are absolutely gripping.

And Will Self reads The Whiteness of the Whale (Chapter 42) with wide open vowels that seem to harken back from across the centuries.

The Moby Dick Big Read is a truly wonderful contribution to the world; if you’re looking for a long-but-compelling audiobook, I highly recommend it. And, of course, Moby Dick really is a book of astounding depth and humor. Describing it as “The Great American Novel” seems entirely deserved.

While none of these homages to Moby Dick could have existed without the internet, they also couldn’t have existed if Moby Dick were still in copyright. The public domain is a valuable space, called out by the US Constitution’s limitation of copyright and patent to “limited times.” Yet copyright has not expired on any works in the US since 1978, meaning that while remix culture can play with Moby Dick, works like The Great Gatsby or 1984 remain mostly out of bounds.

Though I’ve now listened to Moby Dick, I still haven’t read it. I want a little more time to pass since listening to the Big Read before I take that on. Maybe this year, maybe next, I’ll buy a nice hardbound edition and read the actual book. I’m looking forward to it.

Thanks to Fred Benenson for Emoji Dick, Angela Cockayne and Philip Hoare for the Big Read, and whichever unnamed prankster at Clickhole came up with the idea of turning Moby Dick into clickbait. And, of course, to Herman Melville. You’ve all given me much pleasure.