The Venice Oceanarium marks 20 years of “Moby Dick” readings at the breakwater

By Christina Campodonico

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul … I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” — Ishmael

“From hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” — Ahab

Everett Henry’s “The Voyage of the Pequod,” an illustration from a 1950s edition of Moby Dick, traces Melville’s epic tale of obsession, perception and the human condition Library of Congress image

Everett Henry’s “The Voyage of the Pequod,” an illustration from a 1950s edition of Moby Dick, traces Melville’s epic tale of obsession, perception and the human condition
Library of Congress image

Tim Rudnick has read or listened to readings of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” — all 209,117 words of it — at least 23 times.

He’ll do it again this weekend with the help of anywhere from a handful to hundreds of people who may come to the beach for the Venice Oceanarium’s 20th annual public reading of the 1851 novel.

This year more so than others past, Rudnick and his crew won’t be alone in their fascination with Melville’s tale of adventure, obsession and perception. The L.A. Opera is singing about the elusive maritime mammal at The Music Center this November, and director Ron Howard is putting the story behind the novel up on the big screen with the release of “In the Heart of the Sea” this December.

Why all the hype about a big white whale that’s (a) not even real, and (b) more than a century old, even in fictional years?

For Rudnick, founder of the pop-up natural history “museum without walls” that is the Oceanarium, it’s because the tale of a sea captain hell-bent on capturing an albino whale still resonates with every reading.

Asked what draws him back to “Moby Dick” year after year, Rudnick says it’s not anything like Captain Ahab’s fatal obsession, but something more like narrator Ishmael’s observant interest in the world.

“I’m inspired and enchanted by the depth of the book,” he says, adding that the range of topics it covers — philosophy, history, religion, race — makes it an incredible read, and he discovers something new every time.

Rudnick hopes outreach efforts by the Oceanarium’s event partner, the L.A. County Department of Beaches and Harbors, will attract a large number of visitors. The Oceanarium has also partnered with the L.A. Opera and Warner Brothers to give away free tickets to the opera and a special screening of the upcoming film to disadvantaged area youth and seniors.

The Oceanarium’s 20th annual “Moby Dick” reading on Saturday and Sunday, as in years past, roughly coincides with the yearly California gray whale migration down the coast to Mexico.

Surrounded by whale bones and harpoons, readers will assemble at the Venice breakwater near the terminus of Windward Avenue and take turns reading chapters of the lengthy adventure novel aloud over the two-day period. From start to finish, “Moby Dick” takes about 30 hours to read out loud.

For Rudnick, reading “Moby Dick” isn’t just a marathon; it’s a tradition. The novel has been a reoccurring motif throughout his life. Rudnick, 72, first read the book in high school and then on his own, but the book’s aural power really sunk in on a cross-country road trip with a college buddy in 1963.

They didn’t have a radio in the car — which was called Ishmael, by the way — so they took turns reading chapters aloud during the long drive. It was then that Rudnick discovered that the book, “lends itself very well to oratory,” he says. “The sentences are rhythmic and captivating.”

“Moby Dick” reappeared in Rudnick’s life about a year later, around the time he got together with his then girlfriend, now wife. She gave him a copy of the book with an inscription that expressed her hope that he would read the novel again and again. Thus far, that wish has held true.

“Moby Dick” also dovetails nicely with Rudnick’s 30-plus years of collecting nautical specimens, education efforts with the Oceanarium and long-held fascination for the sea and its creatures, a passion nurtured by his late teacher and mentor, Santa Monica City College life sciences professor Ed Tarvyd.

This year’s reading will be dedicated to Tarvyd, who served on the Oceanarium’s board and bonded with Rudnick over “Moby Dick”.

“I’m going to feel sad and empty without Ed there,” Rudnick says.

But he also looks forward to passing the tradition of reading “Moby Dick” on the beach to a new generation.

“We’ve had kids, five-, six-year-old kids, who sit mesmerized by the event, the water, the beach. And we’ve had 80-year-old, 90-year-old people, in fact, who have made their way through the sand to come down and sit near the water and listen to the book. So that’s the exciting part … it’s become a Venice tradition.”

The Venice Oceanarium’s 20th annual public reading of “Moby Dick” happens from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday (Nov. 21 and 22) near the breakwater rocks on Venice Beach close to the terminus of Windward Avenue. Sign up to read your favorite chapter at