A Whale of a Tale: Moby-Dick at Canio’s Books

Canio's Books in Sag Harbor.
Canio's Books in Sag Harbor. Photo: Courtesy Canio's

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (yes, that’s the full title, with the hyphen) was published in 1851 but never gained critical success during author Herman Melville’s lifetime and was already out of print when he died in 1891. Yet “Call me Ishmael” may be the most recognizable opening line in all of American literature. No less an eminence than William Faulkner confessed that he wished he had written the book. The Oxford Companion to English Literature calls it “the closest approach the United States has had to a national prose epic.”

Canio’s Cultural Café in Sag Harbor will be hosting their almost annual Moby-Dick Marathon Friday, June 9 through Sunday, June 11. It’s a long book…

The bookstore’s namesake, Canio Pavone, started the Marathon in 1983 to celebrate Sag Harbor’s seafaring and literary histories. After several years at the bookshop it moved to the Old Whalers’ Church, then, after a short respite, was resumed in coordination with the John Jermain Memorial Library. In 2015, to celebrate Canio’s Books 35th anniversary, 160 readers participated over three days in six locations, according to Maryann Calendrille, co-owner of Canio’s. “Folks came from far and wide, some in costume. One guy even brought bamboo harpoons, some rope and flensing knives.”

Try as we might, the editors at Dan’s Papers could find no evidence that Herman Melville ever visited the East End, despite the obvious connection the area has to whaling. Whaling boats on which Melville worked had, at one time or another, docked at the Long Wharf in Sag Harbor. Calendrille points out that Melville certainly knew of Sag Harbor’s existence. “[Melville] was a customs agent in New York and Sag Harbor had been the U.S. point of entry previously,” she said. Sag Harbor does garner four passing mentions in the novel. In one mention, upon seeing how sailors behaved in the village “poor Queequeg gave it up for lost, Thought he, it’s a wicked world in all meridians; I’ll die a pagan.” Alas, it appears Melville himself was never here.

So then why a marathon reading of the book? “It’s a ‘modern’ masterpiece,” Calendrille says. “The book tackles so many issues we’re concerned about: man’s relation to nature and the environment. It critiques unbridled greed and ambition, madness and obsession, traditions of masculinity, religious hypocrisy, race issues and economic injustice.” It’s a long book… “The experience builds and develops through the hours,” she continues, “You look forward to favorite chapters and get swept up in the momentum of the story. It becomes an incantation.”

What’s Calendrille most looking forward to at this year’s reading? “We’ll see who gets stuck with the cetology chapter.” Chapter 32 of Moby-Dick is Ishmael’s zoological classification of whales, which is as thrilling as it sounds. She recalls the acclaimed actor Harris Yulin reading that particular chapter last year: “it was so mellifluous, it was amazing.”

If you can’t wait until June 9 to get your Moby-Dick fix, you’re in luck. On Saturday, May 20 at 5 p.m. Lisa Dickman will present “Melville: The Modern Master,” an introduction to the author. And on Thursday, June 1 the John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor will screen the 1957 film adaptation of the novel starring Gregory Peck.

If you’d like to join the likes of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, actors, Dan’s Papers editors and a multitude of local writers, publishers, fishermen and farmers and read yourself, send an email with the date and time you’re available to [email protected] with “MDM” in the subject line. Chapter sponsorships are also available.

Chart your path to 290 Main Street, Sag Harbor June 9–11. Call 631-725-4926 or click here for more info.

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