Rereading passages of “Moby-Dick,” I have no idea how my old English teacher once kept 20 hormonal teenagers from staging a mutiny of bawdy wisecracks. It helped, I suppose, that ours was a very conservative Christian prep school. If any of us was tempted to see risque puns lurking in Melville’s classic novel, we knew to pray rather than titter.
Times have changed.
Oct. 18 marks the 164th birthday of “Moby-Dick,” and if you’re looking for the perfect gift for a literary nerd with a ribald sense of humor, ahoy — thar she blows: An English professor and a couple of his former students have produced a card game based on “Moby-Dick” called simply “Dick.”
For $19.75, you get a box of 400 white cards containing short phrases from Melville’s novel. Each player starts with 12. Here, for example, are several cards chosen at random (and then rejected and chosen again and again until I found three that could get by the copy desk):
all the slime of the sea
an everlasting itch
the inglorious bowels of a sick whale
For each round, one person serves as the judge and asks all the other players to submit cards that complete the phrase on one of the green cards, such as:
“Dearly beloved friends, we are gathered here to join together these two persons in. . . ”
“Ted Cruz caused a stir today when he called a press conference to denounce. . . ”
The judge chooses the best submission, “construing ‘best’ however he or she sees fit.” Then the next player serves as judge.
At a very late hour, with sufficient quantities of grog, this may lead to hilarity below deck no matter how much or how little you know about the text of “Moby-Dick.” Or it may feel like you’re stuck on a long voyage with a boorish sailor who thinks “That’s what she said!” is the height of wit.
But the game actually arose from the dark waters of academia. Tim Cassedy, who grew up in the Washington area, harpooned the basic idea while teaching a course at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Once he had the concept in mind, he was struck anew by the “hilarious, fascinating language and imagery” in Melville’s novel. After testing the game on fellow English professors, he and two student co-creators began selling it on Etsy.
tons of tumultuous white curds
an eruption of bears
a sudden sharp poke in the rear
If nothing else, this is proof that the 200,000 words of “Moby-Dick” can humorously complete just about any random phrase. But this is a game you may not want to play with your parents — or your kids. On the very first round, Americans’ most intimidating novel suddenly seems like a vast ocean of dirty Mad Libs.
Cassedy has no patience with those who turn up their fluked tails at the idea of having fun with classic literature. “Moby-Dick,” he says, “questions everything and holds nothing sacred. It’s weirder, funnier, much more irreverent than you think. It would be an exaggeration to say that the book is nonstop sex jokes, but it is nonstop playfulness and irreverence. If the book were sentient and knew that it had become some kind of sacred cow, I think it would be delighted for us to tip that cow over.” (Stop that metaphor!)
Ideally, Cassedy says, people playing this game might discover “that ‘Moby-Dick’ isn’t the sober tome they had been led to expect and feel empowered to read it.”
And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles