By Michael YEGHIAYAN
As part of its ongoing tribute to the Melville classic, “What Ever Happened to Moby Dick?” the Los Angeles Public Library and the Library Foundation of Los Angeles teamed up with actor and comedian Patton Oswalt on Saturday in an effort to introduce the novel to 21st century audiences.
Oswalt, an avid reader who admitted to never being able to complete the lengthy American classic after 10 attempts to do so, read a selection from the novel at each of the three libraries he visited to a diverse crowd that ranged from dedicated Melville enthusiasts to interested on-looking spectators. He then proceeded to discuss the book with the audience, peppering literary analysis with a sharp comic wit that makes Oswalt one of the most respected comedians working today.
Beginning at the Will & Ariel Durant Branch Library, Oswalt mobilized a following, many of whom were in costume, who joined him for a second reading in Silver Lake before concluding the tour at the Echo Park Branch Library.
After each reading, Oswalt encouraged the audience to pick up a copy of the book and commit themselves to reading it, even if doing so required multiple attempts – or the help of a 12-step program.
“If you take a run at it and fail, don’t judge yourself. Just take a run at it again,” he said to the crowd in Echo Park. “We will be having meetings in church basements every week; come by and keep working the program, folks.”
Oswalt also received some help choosing his passages along the way, particularly from an onlooker who felt the bleak message that is typically associated with the novel failed to do it justice.
“This nice old woman named Libby asked me to read the passage where Queequeg gives half of his money to Ishmael, which is a really sweet part of the book,” explained Oswalt. “She told me, ‘I don’t want people to think that Ishmael is so sad, so read the one where he and Queequeg become friends,’ and I told her I’d do that.”
In addition to the readings, Oswalt participated in the library’s “summarizing Moby Dick competition” on Twitter, which looked to further connect modern audiences by using social media.
“They started off telling people to summarize the book in a 140 characters, and when I started seeing the tweets I started going off and sort of picking up on it,” he explained.
The competition received a fair share of entries, but among the best submissions were “Crazy captain spearheads a doomed voyage for vengeance; doesn’t get it that there are bigger fish to fry in life,” “You’ve Got Whale,” and “For sale: whale harpoon. Used twice.”
“What Ever Happened to Moby Dick?” is scheduled to continue into early October with programs planned throughout the city. City librarian John F. Szabo hoped the scope of the whale-inspired activities would help reach a broad audience.
“As the cultural hub of our city, the Los Angeles Public Library is the ideal place to pose this question and explore its answers,” said Szabo in a statement. “We are excited to discover and investigate Moby Dick together as a community in our libraries, from film screenings in Hollywood to nautical rope knots in San Pedro, sea shanties in Hancock Park to navigating by the stars in Studio City.”
The campaign also aims to bring the area youth into their local libraries by piquing their interest and introducing them to the range of programs that are available. Wendy McPherson, Young Adult Librarian of the Echo Park Branch, was on hand answering questions about the library’s after school college prep offerings and SAT writing program.
Oswalt also reminisced about spending some of his high school days in the comfort of a library.
“My school library was great, they had this room off the main area with blue curtains that I would sit in for lunches and read a book, and it was amazing,” he explained. “I loved having a bit of time away from everybody. I’m not introverted, I’m just relaxing.”
For more information about the programs offered by the Los Angeles Library system, visit the library’s website at www.lapl.org. To learn more about “What Ever Happened To Moby Dick?” or The Library Foundation, visit www.lfla.org.