In Fall of 2013, the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Public Library invited readers across Los Angeles to discover or rediscover the great literary masterpiece, Moby Dick, through the lens of the modern and equally mythical Southern California state of mind. It was an unparalleled, month-long city-wide adventure into the minds of author Herman Melville, Captain Ahab and the great white whale itself. With activities scattered from Highland Park to Venice, Granada Hills to San Pedro, the project considered whether a 500-page novel published in 1851 can speak across the ages to a person in 21st Century L.A.

The Library Foundation of Los Angeles is grateful to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the WHH Foundation for their generous support of this project.

Interesting Links

The Moby Dick Big Read

An Audio recording of Moby Dick, read by Tilda Swinton, Benedict Cumberbatch, and others.

"We Are All Aboard the Pequod" by Chris Hedge

“The most prescient portrait of the American character and our ultimate fate as a species is found in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Melville makes our murderous obsessions, our hubris, violent impulses, moral weakness and inevitable self-destruction visible in his chronicle of a whaling voyage. He is our foremost oracle.”

The Hunt for Moby Dick

In this acclaimed film by award-winning director Adam Low for the flagship BBC strand, Arena, Philip Hoare, winner of the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, embarks on a four-year adventure in search of the whale. Filmed in Britain, New England and the Azores, The Hunt for Moby-Dick confronts our perennial fascination with this extraordinary animal, and the book it inspired: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

Leviathan, the documentary

Filmmaker Lucien Castaing-Taylor, who created the documentary Leviathan, received the 2013 Alpert Award in the Arts. An in-depth look at his work.

Moby-Dick, or The Card Game

A card game based on Herman Melville’s classic novel. Draft sailors, explore the sea and survive the terror of the White Whale!

Recommended Reading

Recommended Reading

Moby-Dick (1851) by Herman Melville

“A century and a half after it’s publication, Moby-Dick still stands as an indisputable literary classic. It is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopedia of whaling lore and legend, Moby-Dick is a haunting, mesmerizing, and important social commentary populated with several of the most unforgettable and enduring characters in literature. Written with wonderfully redemptive humor, Moby-Dick is a profound and timeless inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception.”

Why Read Moby-Dick? (2011) by Nathaniel Philbrick

“Philbrick skillfully navigates Melville’s world and illuminates the book’s humor and unforgettable characters-finding the thread that binds Ishmael and Ahab to our own time and, indeed, to all times. A perfect match between author and subject, Why Read Moby-Dick? gives us a renewed appreciation of both Melville and the proud seaman’s town of Nantucket that Philbrick himself calls home. Like Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, this remarkable little book will start conversations, inspire arguments, and, best of all, bring a new wave of readers to a classic tale waiting to be discovered anew.” (From

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The Weaver God, He Weaves: Melville and the Poetics of the Novel (1996) by Christopher Sten

“Melville has long been regarded as an author of raw genius who knew, or cared, little about the art of the novel, and even harbored hostility toward its conventions. In The Weaver-God, He Weaves, Christopher Sten sets out to correct this widespread view, showing not only what Melville knew about the novelist’s craft but how he appropriated and transformed a whole series of distinct genres” (from

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Call Me Ishmael (1947) by Charles Olson

“First published in 1947, this acknowledged classic of American literary criticism explores the influences—especially Shakespearean ones—on Melville’s writing of Moby-Dick. One of the first Melvilleans to advance what has since become known as the “theory of the two Moby-Dicks,” Olson argues that there were two versions of Moby-Dick, and that Melville’s reading King Lear for the first time in between the first and second versions of the book had a profound impact on his conception of the saga: “the first book did not contain Ahab,” writes Olson, and “it may not, except incidentally, have contained Moby-Dick.” If literary critics and reviewers at the time responded with varying degrees of skepticism to the “theory of the two Moby-Dicks,” it was the experimental style and organization of the book that generated the most controversy.” (from—NOTE: This book should be particularly interesting as an example of the surge of interest in Moby Dick that emerged in America after the second world war.)

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Melville: His World and Work (2005)  by Andrew Delbanco

“If Dickens was nineteenth-century London personified, Herman Melville was the quintessential American. With a historian’s perspective and a critic’s insight, award-winning author Andrew Delbanco marvelously demonstrates that Melville was very much a man of his era and that he recorded — in his books, letters, and marginalia; and in conversations with friends like Nathaniel Hawthorne and with his literary cronies in Manhattan — an incomparable chapter of American history. From the bawdy storytelling of Typee to the spiritual preoccupations building up to and beyond Moby Dick, Delbanco brilliantly illuminates Melville’s life and work, and his crucial role as a man of American letters.” (from

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In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2001) by Nathanial Philbrick

“In 1819, the Essex left Nantucket for the South Pacific with twenty crew members aboard. In the middle of the South Pacific the ship was rammed and sunk by an angry sperm whale. The crew drifted for more than ninety days in three tiny whaleboats, succumbing to weather, hunger, disease, and ultimately turning to drastic measures in the fight for survival. Nathaniel Philbrick uses little-known documents-including a long-lost account written by the ship’s cabin boy-and penetrating details about whaling and the Nantucket community to reveal the chilling events surrounding this epic maritime disaster. An intense and mesmerizing read, In the Heart of the Sea is a monumental work of history forever placing the Essex tragedy in the American historical canon.” (from

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The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale (2000) by Nathaniel Philbrick, Thomas Nickerson, and an introduction by Thomas Philbrick

“The Narrative of the Wreck of the Whaleship Essex, by the ship’s first mate, Owen Chase, has long been the fundamental account of the Essex’s doomed voyage. But in 1980, a new account of the disaster was discovered, penned by Thomas Nickerson, the fifteen-year-old cabin boy who was steering the ship when the whale attacked. Now, Nickerson’s harrowing tale can be read alongside Chase’s in one authoritative edition, which includes more than a dozen other accounts from articles and newspapers, many of which have never appeared in book form.” (from NOTE: This book notably has all of the primary sources available for the Essex incident. There are other editions with other commentaries by other authors, and these can be accessed very easily on amazon by googling Essex. I think this one may be the best and most comprehensive due to the inclusion of Thomas Nickerson.)

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The Sounding of Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century (2012) by D. Graham Burnett;

“In the twentieth century, however, our understanding of and relationship to these superlatives of creation underwent some astonishing changes, and with The Sounding of the Whale, D. Graham Burnett tells the fascinating story of the transformation of cetaceans from grotesque monsters, useful only as wallowing kegs of fat and fertilizer, to playful friends of humanity, bellwethers of environmental devastation, and, finally, totems of the counterculture in the Age of Aquarius.” (from

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Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature (2007) by D. Graham Burnett

“In Moby-Dick, Ishmael declares, “Be it known that, waiving all argument, I take the good old fashioned ground that a whale is a fish, and call upon holy Jonah to back me.” Few readers today know just how much argument Ishmael is waiving aside. In fact, Melville’s antihero here takes sides in one of the great controversies of the early nineteenth century–one that ultimately had to be resolved in the courts of New York City. In Trying Leviathan, D. Graham Burnett recovers the strange story of Maurice v. Judd, an 1818 trial that pitted the new sciences of taxonomy against the then-popular–and biblically sanctioned–view that the whale was a fish. The immediate dispute was mundane: whether whale oil was fish oil and therefore subject to state inspection. But the trial fueled a sensational public debate in which nothing less than the order of nature–and how we know it–was at stake

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Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America (2007) by Eric Jay Dolin

“The epic history of the “iron men in wooden boats” who built an industrial empire through the pursuit of whales. ‘To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme,’ Herman Melville proclaimed, and this absorbing history demonstrates that few things can capture the sheer danger and desperation of men on the deep sea as dramatically as whaling.” (from NOTE: This seems to be the definitive one-volume history of the subject. N. Philbrick, who’s written several books featured on this list, has described it as “the best history of American whaling to come along in a generation.”)

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The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea  (2011)  by Philip Hoare

“The Whale by Philip Hoare is a enthralling and eye-opening literary leviathan swimming in similar bestselling waters as Cod and The Secret Life of Lobsters. Winner of the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction, The Whale is a lively travelogue through the history, literature, and lore of the king of the sea—the remarkable mammals that we human beings have long been fascinated with, from Moby Dick to Free Willy.”(from

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Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris (2012) by Christopher Kemp

“Preternaturally hardened whale dung” is not the first image that comes to mind when we think of perfume, otherwise a symbol of glamour and allure. But the key ingredient that makes the sophisticated scent linger on the skin is precisely this bizarre digestive by-product—ambergris. Despite being one of the world’s most expensive substances (its value is nearly that of gold and has at times in history been triple it), ambergris is also one of the world’s least known. But with this unusual and highly alluring book, Christopher Kemp promises to change that by uncovering the unique history of ambergris.”

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