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Marathon Reading Masochism

The absurdity of the literary read-aloud

Bruno Vincent/Getty Images News/Getty

When I stopped by the Gertrude Stein reading on Saturday afternoon, there had been two urns of glistening pink borscht for a sturdy crowd that even included a couple families. Now, at 3:50 a.m. on Sunday morning, there was coffee for just a half dozen stragglers. One woman rubbed her eyes behind her glasses and ate crackers from a plastic bag. In the front row, a man snored. Two women had been reading aloud for an hour. As they continued, the snoring from the front row grew louder. “Wake up,” said one of readers, taking a break from the text. The man did not comply.

The next reader arrived bearing a Chihuahua. The Chihuahua sat on a special pillow, where it watched its owner with quivering intensity. I envied his energy and focus.

This was the scene 30-hours deep into the marathon reading of Stein’s The Making of Americans staged in January by the online literary magazine Triple Canopy. The full text of Stein’s famously unreadable opus was a three-day project. Friday’s champagne kickoff had been noisy and crowded. But by pre-dawn Sunday, only true believers remained at the magazine’s Greenpoint headquarters. This was the event reduced to its essence: a little wild-eyed, very welcoming, and kind of absurd.

Especially at 3:50 a.m., a marathon reading can look a lot like a pious exercise high-culture martyrdom—behold, Great Books instead of text messages! But, as the combination of borscht and Chihuahuas suggests, the spirit of the marathon reading is more elusive.     

Today, June 16—Bloomsday—is possibly the July 4th of marathon readings. Bloomsday has long been the occasion for marathon public readings of James Joyce’s Ulysses, with the original Dublin incarnation spawning numerous far-flung imitators. That was just the beginning. Nowadays, similarly site-specific variations include reading Moby-Dick in New Bedford or the Divine Comedy in Florence. But another kind of marathon reading has lately gained traction: The reading as a social event in its own right, an alternative to other forms of literary festivity, like author readings or actual parties.

Last winter, New York City saw marathons of Moby-Dick, The Making of Americans, and Swann’s Way. Walt Whitman readings in April and June billed themselves as “marathons”—although, clocking in around three hours, Song of Myself is really more of a 5K. Kathryn Hohlwein, head of the literary event production company Readers of Homer, offered The Wall Street Journal an analysis of their appeal. “These readings are really a counterpoint to the culture of Twitter or the sound bite.” she said. “In the era of the quick and easy, I propose the long and difficult.” 

The woman best positioned to explain the popularity of the very long out-loud reading might be Paula Cooper. In 1973, her SoHo gallery began a decades-long tradition of hosting New Year’s Eve marathon readings. Holiday revelers would stumble in and find themselves in a wee-hours performance piece. Mostly the group read Stein's The Making of Americans (Triple Canopy’s event was a kind of revival), although there were occasional substitutions. “John Cage got a little bored with Gertrude Stein,” Cooper explained in a phone interview. “So in 1996/’97 and ’98/’99, Finnegans Wake was read.”

Cooper’s store, 192 Books, also hosted the 100th anniversary Proust marathon in February. This new sort of marathon is cozier, she found: “People brought wonderful croissants.”

Though humor isn't necessarily advertised, the readings often wind up being impressively comic. Contorted syntax, confusing language, unending repetition—read aloud, these things can become funny instead of frustrating. Take this sample from Stein: “I am thinking of attacking being not as an earthy kind of substance but as a pulpy not dust not dirt but a more mixed up substance, it can be slimy, gelatinous, gluey, white opaquy kind of thing and it can be white and vibrant, clear and heated and this is all not very clear to me and I will now tell more about it.” Somewhere around “opaquy” an audience loses it. 

Listeners won’t quite be laughing at Gertrude Stein, or at themselves, but at some combination of the two, plus the absurdity of a situation in which they are complicit. 

Wikimedia Commons
A man reads from James Joyce's Ulysses at the annual Bloomsday celebration in Dublin.

The new marathon’s appeal may have less to do with intellect than nostalgia for a certain all-nighter intensity that's hard to find in everyday life. The marathon reading is the intramural soccer game, the a cappella showcase, the lit mag on deadline. “Oh,” my roommate said when we signed up to marathon-read Moby-Dick. “I get it. This is college.” Like college, it feels high-pressure but may not actually matter. In Triple Canopy’s austere office, readers sat at a long table beneath artful bunting, and when they propped their elbows beside their matching books, they looked seminarish. A tabletop scoreboard, the kind you might find at a volleyball game, kept track of the page count.

By Sunday morning, another analogy suggested itself. The marathon reading, that great display of offline literary togetherness, was starting to feel like the Internet. Of course, all along, whole event was documented extensively online—by photographers, on Twitter, and over a live-stream. But beyond that, I began to feel, marathon reading didn’t offer a high-minded alternative to “the culture of Twitter or the sound bite”; the marathon reading evoked the feeling of the Internet offline.

Sunday morning, in the nearly empty room, I agreed to take the 6:30 walk-in slot. At first, reflexively, I had declined. “I have to go soon,” I said, before realizing this was a bizarre thing to say. It was 6:00 in the morning: Where did I have to go? And anyway, I thought—why not? Who would see me? No one here had to know my name. I could sound and look as bad as I wanted and then I would disappear. I felt eager for attention, even if one-sixth of my audience was a Chihuahua. I read from 6:30 to 6:50, absorbed none of the words I saw or spoke, and then left: sleepy, but also kind of jazzed.

The social experience that a marathon reading offers—an all-hours buffet of group laughs and idle companionship—is as close as anything in real life gets to hanging out online. You’re not sure who you’re with, but you’re all staring at the same thing, and maybe, sometimes, at each other. You might invite stares, you might talk, or you might not do anything at all. You can drop in whenever and poke around for a while. You can wake up at 3:15, read until your eyes ache, eat leftovers, and go back to bed.