A Whale of a Tale: Bookish Vacations and Literary Landmarks

Nantucket lighthouse

The past month has been a whirlwind of last minute book deadlines and long distance road trips. The boyfriend and I spent a week mid-April in Cape Cod. It was pre-season so it was cold, many things (including the Nantucket Nectar juice stand, curses!!) were closed, and it was generally pretty empty. With our inn, the surrounding restaurants, museums, beaches, national parks, towns, and–on the day we went–the entire island of Nantucket, being relatively unpopulated, rather than feeling lonely, we kind of enjoyed the feeling that we had the place to ourselves. Though I definitely want to go back in season when it’s warm, sometime.

We went to Nantucket, mostly because I was dying to check out the Whaling Museum which ended up being SO WORTH the 2.5 hour ferry ride each way (the ferry itself was awesome, so bonus points). If you’re into history, lighthouses, seafaring, etc., I highly recommend it. But there is one entire wall dedicated to the various harpoons used–along with graphic illustrations–of the whaling/killing process, so if your love of animals completely outweighs your fascination and need to know things (I like knowing All The Things, so even though it was sad to know how many whales were killed and how barbarically it was done, it was still really interesting) then maybe not your cup of tea.

To my great surprise, the island and museum actually had a major literary connection: Did you know that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was directly inspired by a real Nantucket whaling voyage? Truth!

Nantucket used to be the biggest whaling capital in the world and ships of natives would go to sea for years at a time, sometimes not returning for as many as four years, in order to hunt sperm whales, whales that provided the most valuable oil (taken out of their head cavity) that burned clean and was used to make candles and to keep lighthouses burning brightly. (Fun Pennsylvania fact: When oil was discovered in 1861 in Titusville, PA, whaling went out of style and the industry quickly died. So, hurray, PA for saving the whales!) One particular ship that left Nantucket’s shore, the Essex, sailed to the South Pacific, where it encountered a MONSTER sperm whale in 1820. The ship was 87 feet long and the whale was estimated at 85 feet long; a pretty even match.

At that estimation, the whale was twice the size of the skeleton on display at the museum (shown below to help your imagination).

Nantucket Whaling Museum
Do you see, in the bottom of the photograph, that boat? That boat fit about 4 men, just to give you a size comparison to the skeleton. Personally, I, as a post-JAWS generation individual, think it’s RIDICULOUS to go floating around in the ocean hunting something that’s not only bigger than me but three times the size of my floatation vessel…

They tried to kill the whale and, in response, the irate whale attacked and totaled the ship. The survivors floated on the ocean for 92 days in 20-foot back up boats that leaked and eventually, after eating the organs of those who died naturally, they resorted to drawing lots to decide who would sacrifice themselves next for their colleague’s next meal. Interestingly enough, three of the men who returned home wrote memoirs about their experiences on the boat and eating their cousins and former neighbors. It didn’t mention this in the museum, but I doubt these memoirs were well received. I mean, they were living on an ISLAND for the rest of their lives, with less than 10,000 people (similar to my college town) and they put on record who they ate. I’m sure relations were uncomfortably strained, at best. This really great Smithsonian blog post, “The True-Life Horror that Inspired Moby Dick” discusses the details of the shipwreck and how the survivors were received (some without much judgement, some more so) if you’re interested in reading more.

The rest of the vacation followed with a rather bookish theme. Went we went to Provincetown, the highlight of the day was the town library…

This was the outside...
This was the outside…
And this was the inside. It is a BOAT. In the children’s section of a library!! (I can’t imagine how they all resist climbing aboard, something that, according to numerous signs and to our great disappointment, is strictly prohibited.)
This. THIS. Awesome.
This. THIS. Awesome.

We also went on the Cape Cod Potato Chip Factory Tour…

Cape Cod Potato Chip Factory Tour

…and went to one of the most heartbreaking Red Sox games (pouring rain storm, then, they had the lead but gave up FIVE RUNS in the top of the ninth, ugh.)

Fenway Park

The last day, we stopped in to visit/pick up a friend in Cambridge for the long drive back to Pennsylvania and spent the day hopping around various bookish attractions: The Raven (a used bookstore), the Harvard Bookstore (AMAZING), which also had an Espresso Book Machine named Paige M. Gutenborg, which I stared at, practically drooling, like I was hypnotized, watching books get printed on demand (Side story: Last year, at BEA, someone told me there was an espresso machine behind our booth and I WAS SO EXCITED being the book nerd I am, but when I got there it was an actual, coffee beverage espresso machine and I was terribly disappointed), and the Curious George Store which had a small but respectable children’s book section.

It was strange, going on a vacation that didn’t include a bathing suit–a first for me–and though I had been hoping for it to be a complete break from everything stressful and everything book related, some last minute page proof corrections and panicked email correspondences did seep into the vacation. And I didn’t get any fiction writing done like I’d been hoping [deep sigh] but it was great to just have a break and sleep in late and simply recharge. Thankfully now, the book is officially and completely done (more on this later) and now EVERYDAY feels like a vacation (okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it IS a huge relief).

A bookish-themed vacation isn’t terribly unusual for me–I love visiting author’s homes, like Emily Dickinson’s house and the Mark Twain house and the Edgar Allan Poe house in Philadelphia–but visiting a place that inspired a great work of fiction was definitely a first for me this year. How about you? Do you check out libraries, bookstores, and literary landmarks while on vacation? Any places you’d recommend planning a visit to this summer?


Published by hannahkarena

author & book publishing person.

4 thoughts on “A Whale of a Tale: Bookish Vacations and Literary Landmarks

  1. Definitely love book-ish themed vacations. I also like try to buy a book from a local bookstore set in the place I’m visiting. So for example, when I visited Maine I went to a small used bookshop and bought MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH THE STATE OF MAINE. Lovely photos. Looks like you had an awesome trip.


    1. Me too! This trip I picked up a used copy of Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, 1602-1890 at the Harvard Bookstore that I’m super excited to start reading. National Parks usually have fantastic local book selections in their gift stores, but I was a little disappointed this time around. Most of the national parks just had cookbooks for cranberries–weird.


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