Celebrities Give New Life to Moby Dick

However you feel about classic literature and Moby Dick in particular, seeing Plymouth University and a group of people (celebrities included) putting hours of effort into it has to make you curious (or is it just me?). In this case, celebrities from all genres (actors and actresses, writers, directors, musicians, politicians, etc.) have joined together to record an audio book of Moby Dick by Herman Melville. You can hear a chapter read by Benedict Cumberbatch, Neil Tennant, Fiona Shaw, and many more (see the full list and links to the audio book chapters by reader at Open Culture’s “Hear Moby Dick Read in Its Entirety by Benedict Cumberbatch, John Waters, Stephen Fry, Tilda Swinton, & More“)

Does that mean it’s going to be the best audio book of Moby Dick ever? Maybe. Maybe not. Some chapters will probably be better than others – being a good musician, director, prime minister, etc. doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be a good voice actor. They might be, but you won’t really know until you listen.

But isn’t that the point?

The goal of this project wasn’t necessarily to make a good audio book of Moby Dick. That was probably 1 of the goals, but if it were the main goal, there’d be no real motivation to have so many different and diversely famous voice actors. Even supporting new interpretations doesn’t require celebrities. So why would Plymouth University deliberately complicate the project by trying to get so many famous people involved? Why not have their own students do it to promote student experience in performance and recording?

Well, do you think your average college student is going to be more excited about someone reading Moby Dick or Benedict Cumberbatch reading anything?

I can’t confirm this, but I have a hunch that that the people in charge of this project saw the trend of stars like Benedict Cumberbatch, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee, Neil Gaiman, and so on reading poetry and works of literature on youtube. They probably also saw the outpouring of interest as these videos were passed around facebook and other social media. Put the two facts together, and it becomes clear that the Average Joe is more interested in works of literature when read by someone famous.

So how could a university use that to its advantage?

Well, as classical literature goes, Moby Dick is a particularly imposing piece, and I don’t think many people tackle it unless they’re required to for class (and even then, most find an online summary instead). I’m picturing a professor (tweed and all), frustrated and worn down by years of students who refuse to read the novel. He or she is trying to lead a class discussion but hears only silence or statements that obviously came from cliffsnotes/sparknotes/shmoop. He or she roars a dismissal at the class, collapses at the desk, and pulls out a bottle of gin. After the third or fourth tear-diluted drink, the lightbulb flashes on – what if I get it read by celebrities? Then – then, they’ll listen!

Ok. That’s an imaginary dramatization with no known basis in fact; however, the motivation and general strategy seems plausible. By using stars as the readers, the university can pique student interest and possibly (crossed fingers) expose more students to a classical piece (that some think changed the world). By making it available free online, they could even reach people outside of a university setting: the fame of the readers could help the project spread.

And maybe those listeners will only listen to a snippet here or there – to hear the artists they like best). But maybe, they’ll listen to a whole chapter by an artist they like. Or maybe, that snippet will pull them in. Whether they listen to a line, a chapter, or the whole  book, it will be more than they probably would have been exposed to otherwise.

Now, how valuable will hearing a little snippet prove in the long run? Who knows? But as an effort to get more people interested in an intimidating work, it’s definitely a success. What classical piece do you think they should tackle next? And who should read it?


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