A Whale of an Acquisition

“Moby Dick,” Herman Melville’s tale of high-seas adventure, heroic determination and the power of man, has been heralded as one of the greatest novels in the English language. Now, perhaps it can be given the same commendation in picture writing.

:) :( ♥ You’ve probably seen these symbols in text messages and emails. So imagine an entire book translated into these little emoticons. Data engineer Fred Benenson did just that with the classic in his re-imagined translation, “Emoji Dick.” And the Library of Congress recently added the work to its collections.

In 2009, Benenson started a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project and within a month raised enough money to put it together. He contracted thousands of people to translate one sentence of the book into emoji, had the best ones voted into place and compiled the book from those.

In his Kickstarter proposal, Fred explained, “I’m interested in the phenomenon of how our language, communications and culture are influenced by digital technology. Emoji are either a low point or a high point in that story, so I felt I could confront a lot of our shared anxieties about the future of human expression by forcing a great work of literature through such a strange new filter.”

Buying into Fred’s premise was Michael Neubert, a recommending officer for the Library’s collections. He caught wind of the project through online news sources and was able to reel the book in for the Library.

“I am very pleased that the Library was able to add this work to its collections,” Neubert said. “There is, in the literal sense, no other book in the Library’s collections like it.

“What is striking for the Library’s collections about this work is that it takes a known classic of literature and converts it to a construct of our modern way of communicating, making possible an investigation of the question, ‘is it still a literary classic when written in a kind of smart phone based pidgin language?’” he added. “Simply demonstrating that it is possible is interesting in that regard.”

The book also represents a successful example of crowdsourcing – not only in the funding of the project through Kickstarter but also in using a crowd to produce the book with Amazon Mechanical Turk.

According to Neubert, the bibliographic record is the only one in the roughly 14 million items cataloged in the Library’s system that credits the crowdsource Amazon Mechanical Turk for any creative role.

“Emoji Dick” joins many other versions of Melville’s “Moby Dick” in its collections, including a 2008 graphic novel version, a 2007 pop-up book and a 1984 adaptation for young readers. The classic novel also appears as part of Melville compilation volumes, with different editors and introductions, translated versions in Chinese, Russian and German, and of course the original version from 1851 recently featured in the Library’s “Books That Shaped America” exhibition.

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington goes on to talk about “Moby Dick” and its importance in American literature.

2 Comments

  1. Vaughn
    February 23, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    The so-called “Emoji Dick”, written in a “kind of smart phone based pidgin language” should be added to LOC’s collection only in the cartoon section. This certainly doesn’t deserve to be called a book.

  2. Joe
    August 18, 2013 at 7:18 pm

    What defines a “book”? Does emoji count as a script? As pictographs? How is it any different from hieroglyphs or early cuneiform or other stuff? does the fact it was designed to supplement other writing systems make it any less a writing system of its own? Is Emoji Dick a parody or a translation of Moby Dick, or something in between?

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