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SmartTalk: Margaret Guroff

Creator of “Power Moby-Dick: The Online Annotation”

October 2, 2008

Photo by Adriana Cordero

 
SmartTalk: Margaret Guroff Margaret Guroff, Creator of
“Power Moby-Dick: The Online Annotation.”
 

Call her Meg.

Margaret Guroff, a former chief editor of Baltimore magazine, lives in Washington, D.C., where she is health editor of AARP The Magazine. She also teaches nonfiction writing at Johns Hopkins University and plays bass in a rock band called The Charm Offensive. But the pursuit that occupied most of Guroff’s time this spring — her obsession, if you will — was the creation of a web site devoted to making perfect sense of Herman Melville’s classic American novel, Moby-Dick. By following Guroff’s meticulous “notes to help the reader” at www.powermobydick.com, you find out that Ishmael is overcoming a foul mood when he says he is “driving off the spleen.” And “going plump on a flying whale” means heading straight for it.

At Guroff’s site, you also learn how Moby-Dick has been absorbed into other parts of our culture, including cartoons, musicals and dance routines.


Q. What drove you to create “Power Moby-Dick: The Online Annotation”?

Guroff: The fact that it hadn’t been done. Moby-Dick is full of archaic words and neologisms, classical and 19th-century pop-culture references, and of course sailing and whaling lingo.

As I was reading the book for the first time, I kept Googling “Moby Dick annotated” in frustration, because I couldn’t believe there wasn’t already an online tool to help people read the thing. After a few chapters of looking up all the words and references myself, I realized I was doing the work of making an annotation, so I decided to save my notes and post them.

Q. Why Moby-Dick, and how did you make yourself an expert on Melville’s work?

Guroff: A friend from my book club really wanted to read it, and it’s too long for our club, so I offered to read it with him. At first, it was just a friendly thing to do, but I quickly got swept up in the book’s awesomeness. It is very hard going in spots, but every effort you make to understand it is generously rewarded.

I wouldn’t call myself a Melville “expert,” though; I’m just someone who has brought together and simplified a lot of the experts’ hard work.

Q. How long did this project take you to complete?

Guroff: From first cracking the book to posting the first version of the site in July was about four months. While I was working on it, I thought of it as just another project — you get a little obsessive about something, finish it in a mad dash, and then move on to the next thing. But the beauty (and danger) of the Internet is that nothing is ever finished. I keep thinking of new things to add to the site, and it has become much more of an ongoing project than I thought it would be. I had to limit myself to posting updates on Sundays, otherwise I’d do it all week long.

Q. What personal sacrifices did you have to make as you pursued Moby-Dick?

Guroff: Well, I had just broken up with someone when I started reading the book, so I had some extra time on my hands! I doubt I would have done the annotation if I weren’t feeling sort of solitary and in need of a focus outside of myself. I did devote some of my vacation time to the project, as well as many weekends and late nights, but I was so engrossed that I didn’t experience it as a sacrifice. It was just the task that was before me to do.

Q. What were the most frustrating and most satisfying parts of the project?

Guroff: The actual programming of the web site could be frustrating at times. I had never done any web coding before, so I was really flying blind. Luckily, I have some very clever friends (thanks Joab, Lorie, and Lukas) who managed to get me out of the various fixes I found myself in.

As for satisfaction, it makes me happy and proud that Power Moby-Dick is helping people in the way I was hoping it might. My favorite e-mail so far came from someone in Tennessee who had been trying to read the book for 40 years, and my web site is what finally allowed him to finish it.

Q. How difficult would a project like this have been prior to the Internet?

Guroff: Without a doubt, this project would have been impossible for me without the Internet, and I never would have attempted it. I wouldn’t have known where to begin. And even if I had somehow miraculously done it, who would have published it? No one. I had no credentials to be doing this. But because of the web, I had instant access to sailing manuals, whaling histories, contemporary depictions of the things and places described in the novel, and 150+ years’ worth of Melville scholarship - plus a way to publish my own work based on it all.

Q. One Israeli blogger wrote, “This online edition of Moby-Dick is attractive and amazingly comfortable to read.” Though your project is foremost a literary pursuit, how much thought did you put into the presentation and organization of the site?

Guroff: My goal with the design was to make it as plain and clear as possible. One thing that helped tremendously is that a company called arc90 gives away a CSS-and-Javascript routine you can use to put color-coded sidenotes onto a web site. Those sidenotes are really elegant, and they’re most of what people are talking about when they praise the design of the site. But I have been shocked to hear how many people find it comfortable to read online, since you’d expect it to be hard on the eyes. I have even heard from people who are reading it on their iPhones!

Q. What’s the most interesting or unexpected feedback you’ve received?

Guroff: All the feedback has been unexpected! When I put the site up, I wasn’t sure if anyone other than my mother would ever see it, but I’ve gotten e-mails from visitors all over the world. I’ve had people write to tell me their personal experiences with Moby-Dick growing up, or why it’s their favorite book. I’ve had scholars write seeking the answers to arcane questions, such as whether Melville owned a particular translation of the Bible. (I never know the answers to those, but I usually know of someone who might have the answer.) I’ve had people write to make suggestions about the site, many of which I have taken. I’ve been blown away by how much people care about the book and, by extension, the site.

Q. Have other creative avenues opened up to you as a result of Power Moby-Dick?

Guroff:
The most direct result is that I’ve been invited to review a new book based on Moby-Dick, so I may have made myself into a micro-pundit. And I’m suddenly seen as “web savvy” at work, which is valuable since the web is increasingly where the professional opportunities in my field are.

Q. Any ideas for your next “power” project?

Guroff:
I wish I knew! I have been taking a bit of a breather to focus on my full-time job (and social life, which strangely was not enhanced by my spending four months in my pajamas annotating a 19th-century metaphysical novel). I may do another annotation at some point — people frequently suggest James Joyce’s Ulysses — but I’d be just as happy showing someone else how to do it.

Power Moby-Dick: www.powermobydick.com
AARP The Magazine: www.aarpmagazine.org
The Charm Offensive: www.myspace.com/charmrockdc