Herman Melville’s iconic first sentence — “Call me Ishmael” — launched more than 30 Fenwick High School students, faculty and staff on a voyage through Melville’s “Moby-Dick.”

The voyage lasted nearly 23 hours between Jan. 4 and Jan. 5, according to Fenwick English teacher and “Moby-Dick” Club moderator Laura Gallinari, who added that the read-a-thon celebrating Melville’s 200th birthday took 1½ years to plan.

Some read in 15-minute intervals. Others listened live or online thanks to Fenwick’s broadcasting club, which live-streamed the event. Local businesses Firecakes Donuts, Jimmy’s Place, Spilt Milk Pastry and Starship Restaurant and Catering donated ample rations.

Katherine Casagrande, a Fenwick junior and “Moby-Dick” Club member from Elmhurst, described the days-long literary marathon as “a party read-aloud.” There were themed snacks, such as whale-shaped brownies. The podium was decorated in netting and a ship’s helm. There were whale coloring pages, themed movies and even whale tattoos.

At a photo station, students could pose with props — “prominent symbols and images in the book as well as iconic moments,” said Natalia Dabrowska, a Fenwick senior from River Grove who created much of the artwork.

Gallinari described a challenging heads-or-tails puzzle that students had solved by 7:30 p.m.

“It was almost like their white whale,” she said. “They were going to get it.”

Isabella Romanucci, a Fenwick senior from Elmwood Park, said there’s ample humor in “Moby-Dick.” She came back early from a vacation to Colorado to hear the story of the hunt for the white whale.

Nearly 24 hours of listening takes endurance, but students, faculty and staff described the process of reading and listening out-loud as part of the magic.

“Dialogue, in general, when it’s read out loud, becomes more lifelike,” Dabrowska said.

“I love out-loud reading,” Casagrande said. “It’s so much easier to imagine and picture, and doing it with friends makes it so much fun.”

Many readers noticed Melville’s descriptive language.

“Melville is such a master craftsman that hearing his language aloud, especially since it’s older, brings it to life,” Gallinari said.

The Rev. Dennis Woerter is Fenwick’s director of campus ministry. He read the first sentence.

“It’s quite a responsibility, because it’s so iconic,” he said.

Students mentioned that Gallinari’s leadership in the club helped them appreciate the language, as did one another’s comments.

“Because it’s such a long book, some of these intricate sentences get lost,” Dabrowska said. “That’s what’s great about a club where we analyze the details in parts.”

Gallinari said Melville wrestles with universal questions and concerns, including mortality and moral decisions, through his characters.

“Ishmael has a crisis of mortality,” Gallinari said. “At the beginning of the book, he talks about depression and hints at suicide.”

Starbuck, another character, also faces a crisis, she said: “He doesn’t know whether to rebel and save the crew, or obey the captain and face likely doom.”

Some characters may serve as a warning.

“There’s a danger in single-minded stubbornness — being so focused on one goal that you lose sight of the bigger picture,” Woerter said of Captain Ahab’s quest to kill the white whale regardless of the danger to himself and his crew.

Others elicit empathy, said Fenwick’s president, the Rev. Richard Peddicord. Peddicord read a sermon about Jonah from Chapter 9.

“Each of us can relate to difficult things that we want to flee from, but in the end won’t be happy until we do them,” he said, adding, “In ‘Moby-Dick,’ life is a journey, a quest, seeking a goal.”

“There’s certainly a journey at play, and throughout the book, you don’t always know where they are,” Woerter said.

Romanucci described taking a literary journey with others at the read-a-thon.

“It’s definitely powerful, because I don’t think many of us have had this kind of experience before, and it’s all about a book,” she said.

And that, Gallinari said, might be part of Melville’s point. The sole survivor of his crew, Ishmael, is saved by floating on a literal coffin made for a friend who survived an illness. He is rescued by another ship whose crew is searching for a lost member. “What saves his life is human interconnectedness,” she said.

“Herman Melville goes back and forth about whether there is a God or not, or whether fate chooses or we do,” Romanucci said. “The main thing that matters is human connection; even if you don’t know what’s behind the universe, you can take comfort in the people around you.”

Rachel K. Hindery is a freelance reporter for Pioneer Press.



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