The answer, it turned out, was 12,849, or about 45 Twitter posts per day for nine-and-a-half months—as programmer Dan Coulter, a Twitter follower and prior collaborator of Koford’s, discovered after he took the cartoonist’s question as a challenge.
Coulter’s robotic Moby-Dick Twitter feed started on July 28 and ended last Wednesday, May 13. While it was running, the robot (a script Coulter wrote in the PHP computer language) spit out one paragraph of Melville’s beloved and dreaded tome every hour during the business day, with the text sliced into Twitter’s signature 140-character-max dispatches. The account—with Twitter handle “publicdomain”—has attracted 418 followers, and today it begins blurting its next out-of-copyright text, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
Why start with Moby-Dick? Koford says he was inspired by Twitter’s “fail whale,” the blissed-out white cetacean that appears onscreen whenever the micro-blogging network is overloaded. Though he had never read the full book on paper, Koford says, he’d read an “amazing” graphic adaptation by Bill Sienkiewicz. He had also endured an audiobook version narrated by actor Burt Reynolds. “He basically screams the whole book,” Koford recalls in an email. “Looking back, I’m not sure how I made it through that.” Still, Koford says, he loved the book.
Programmer Coulter was less enthusiastic. “I’m not a Melville fan,” he confesses. “I tried reading Billy Budd once, and I got about five pages into that. The language and the pacing has never been able to grab my interest.”
Reading 140 characters at a time, however, Coulter made it through Moby-Dick. And with the text in that format, he was able to appreciate Melville’s artistry with language. “It surprised me how poetic he could be at times,” Coulter says. “Stuff would come through that was really amazing.” Even more than the poetry, though, Coulter appreciated the humor inherent in the medium. “Twitter turned the book into this weird series of non-sequiturs—things that, taken out of context, were absolutely hilarious,” he says. “I don’t know that I would ever want to read Moby-Dick as a book, but as a Twitter feed, I really enjoyed it.”
A list of Coulter’s favorite funny Moby-Dick tweets appears in a wrap-up he posted to his blog last week. Fans of the book may recognize a few lines that are as amusing in context as out. This July 31 tweet, for example, follows narrator Ishmael’s first encounter with Queequeg, the Polynesian harpooner: “But I don’t fancy having a man smoking in bed with me. It’s dangerous. Besides, I ain’t insured.”
Margaret Guroff is the editor and publisher of Power Moby-Dick.
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