Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading marathons

Public reading No Friend but the MountainsToday’s post was inspired by two comments on yesterday’s post which featured a public reading event I’d taken part in. Lisa (ANZLitLovers) commented that she is taking part in a reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses in a Queenscliff bookshop next Bloomsday, while Karen (Booker Talk) said she wasn’t sure she’d heard of such a grand scale reading event. I had heard of them before, but decided that it was time I got the real gen!

So, I checked Wikipedia (where I found an article on Marathon Reading); I googled; and of course I researched Trove. I discovered a whole world of reading events, which I’ll share here, focussing on Australia, but including some other places too, for context. Wikipedia’s article (accessed 25/3/19) is minimal, basically referencing a few examples of what it calls “marathon reading” but what is more commonly called a “reading marathon”. The first marathon reading Wikipedia describes is a yearly event run by UCLA “where a group of students, faculty, community members, alumni, and often even celebrities read a novel (or two) out loud non-stop for a 24-hour period.”

That description essentially defines what I’m discussing in this post, with a couple of provisos. The time frame for a reading marathon can vary, from several hours to several days; and the readers of course can vary too, from professionals to lay people of all sorts, depending on the event.

Google was useful – to a degree. What I discovered was that Bible reading marathons are BIG. They are big in Australia, and big in the USA, too. Some churches and religious organisations hold them regularly. A bit more on this anon. However, Google also brought up all sorts of reading marathons for various books:

  • the Bible
  • Herman Melville’s Moby Dick
  • James Joyce’s Ulysses
  • George Orwell’s 1984
  • Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’ The wide Sargasso Sea
  • Walt Whitman’s Leaves of grass
  • Harry Potter
  • Jack Kerouac’s On the road
  • Madelaine L’Engle’s A wrinkle in time

The first three popped up frequently, with some organisations running them as regular events. 1984 also popped up more than once.

Most reading marathons seem to have a goal, mostly spiritual (the Bible), or political (eg 1984) or cultural (eg Ulysses). Literacy also pops up frequently as a reason.

The Australian scene

The first references I found to reading marathons in Trove came from the 1920s and 1930s and were all about Bible reading marathons in the USA. It appears that the practice became competitive, with churches vying to do it faster than other churches! An article in World News (30 January 1926) said that “the idea originated in a small western centre some time ago, and had as its object the establishment of a counter-attraction to the then prevalent non-stop dancing Marathons”. The first Bible marathons took 72 hours, but, the article said, a Boston church had done it in 52 hours 18 minutes and 27 seconds. Clergymen were apparently denouncing the contests because “they detract from the reverence in which the Bible should be held, and that the readers gain no instruction or inspiration from their efforts”. There were several articles on the topic, with titles like “Excesses of American churches”.

The first report I found of an Australian reading was of – yes – Ulysses! It was held at the National Library of Australia on June 16, 1993. (I was living in the USA at the time!!) The article starts:

Literary fans walked into the fourth-floor reading room at the National Library yesterday, leaving the cold of a Canberra winter to emerge in Dublin, June 16, 1904, and celebrate Bloomsday slightly late at a marathon eight hour-plus reading of the James Joyce epic, Ulysses.

James Joyce UlyssesDid they read all of Ulysses in 8 hours? I’d be surprised. Anyhow the report says that the readers, of whom there were over 30, included local politicians, writers and other community figures, and that

there were about half a dozen real Irish accents and an equal number of reasonable facsimiles. Others struggled to overcome Irish names and colloquialisms of varying degrees of technical difficulty and with differing levels of success.

Love it. The article also said that Canberra’s Irish community had held Bloomsday readings before but this was the first at the National Library.

My googling for Australian examples turned up mostly Bible marathons and some Ulysses marathons, both of which continue today (despite those early Bible marathon criticisms!)

George Orwell, 1984However, there were others. In Melbourne in September 2015, the Wheeler Centre and the Melbourne Festival, organised a “marathon relay reading” of 1984, “Orwell’s prescient novel of power and politics …in a very apt setting—the Legislative Assembly Chamber in Victoria’s Parliament House.” The event was to take over 9 hours, and would involve up to 30 people reading from the Speaker’s chair! Wow! That must have taken some negotiation. The readers included politician Adam Bandt, human rights lawyer Julian Burnside, feminist writer Clementine Ford, ex-Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs, political speech writer Don Watson, and Rosie author Graeme Simsion.

And, just last year, again in Melbourne, the bookshop Readings supported a marathon reading of Emily Watson’s translation of the Odyssey. This was a professional reading organised by The Stork Theatre. A free event, it was to use over 30 performers, and take 12 hours. The promotion said “Come along for your favourite chapter, bring a picnic, stay for the whole 12-hour marathon or come and go as as you please.”

Variations on a theme

My research revealed other events or activities that were tagged reading marathons, but were different from the more common use of the term. These activities comprised two main types:

  • Reading as many books as you can in a given period (a bit like the well-known Ms Readathon): There were a lot of these, one example being the William Stimson Public School, in Wetherill Park NSW, which described its 2017 Book Week as being the “culmination of their reading marathon where the school community read more than 9000 books”. I found these sorts all around the world, from Kenya to the United Arab Emirates, from Latvia to Argentina, as well as in Australia!
  • Nick Bland, The very cranky bearSimultaneous storytime: This is an event where the same story is read at the same time in multiple places. An example occurred in Australia in 2012 when Nick Bland’s The Very Cranky Bear was read aloud “in about 2200 libraries, kindies, schools and homes across Australia” to over 300,000 children in the 12th National Simultaneous Storytime. This event’s aim is partly, at least, to promote literacy.

So, have you attended (or taken part in) a reading marathon? If you have, how did you find it?

32 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading marathons

  1. Oh dear, now I’m worried about having to “to overcome Irish names and colloquialisms of varying degrees of technical difficulty”.
    I’ve read Ulysses four times now, but I’ve never read it aloud so I’ve never really thought about the demands it might make in an oral reading.

  2. Pingback: Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading marathons | Phil Slattery, Author

  3. Wonderful history here. I had no idea they started as a response to the dance marathons. I’ve participated in a marathon reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, CT here in the US. I was scheduled to read at a Moby Dick marathon at the New Bedford Whaling Museum two years ago, but a snowstorm canceled my plans. Some reading marathons now live stream their event, which can be fun to watch.

    • Ah I must look out for one Chris. I read that New Bedford does Moby Dick regularly, even annually? Did Stowe’s book have some tricky accents? I’m guessing you enjoyed doing it?

  4. The closest I ever came (and I would never volunteer for such a thing), was a couple of decades ago. I was in a graduate class in which we were assigned a Victorian doorstopper novel a week, so we are talking about 800 pages. This came on top of work, and 3 other classes all of which had homework.
    I was a lot younger obviously, but I would force myself to sit and read and read and read. It actually was a pleasant experience.

  5. I have never attended or taken part in a reading marathon. They sound like a lot of fun. The kind where people sit home and read as much as possible over course of a day or so are somewhat popular with book bloggers that I know. After reading your post I want to attend one of the in person full book readings.

    • Ah yes, of course Brian. I should have remembered those blogger marathons. I haven’t done one, but have read posts about them. They didn’t come up in a search. Google let me down! Time to try Bing perhaps!!

  6. I have never attended a reading marathon, and It doesn’t appeal to me. Though I would have liked listening to the Odyssey by Emily Wilson, this is a wonderful translation. I read novels silently, but I do like listening to poetry.

    • Thanks Meg. That’s interesting that it doesn’t appeal , though I understand why. It could be very frustrating I think – only hearing a bit, readers varying in ability, etc, But I did really enjoy my experience. I could imagine loving an Austen one because I know her so well that it would be fun hearing bits and not feeling I had to be there for hours to get the story!

  7. I’ve never participated in one and it doesn’t appeal much to me – I don’t want to turn reading into an endurance event! Friends often ask how I get so many books read (I don’t really, compared to other bloggers) but I think it’s because I read small amounts, often – five minutes here and there add up to a lot of reading. Some books take a bit more reading commitment and I save them for when I have more time, but overall, the thought of reading marathons or reading a whole book in one go, for the sake of it, does nothing for me.

    • Thanks Kate… I understand what you are saying. I can’t imagine going to such an event and sitting through a whole book that way, but I’d attend part of one, or take part in one (as I did), if it meant something to me. In this case it was a refugee issue that I wanted to support, but I can also imagine going to part of a reading of Ulysses for example because it’s a cultural icon OR to that 1984 one done at parliament house. I’d go see Julian Burnside read part of 1984!!

  8. There’s a 30 hour reading marathon that takes place over Twitter in October each year. It’s on a weekend. I am yet to actually read for the entire 30 hours! I think a lot of people split the hours over the entire weekend, which is kind of more doable but not really a marathon anymore.

    • Thanks Theresa. Yes, once I was reminded of these blogging type marathons, I remembered that one as one of my American blogger friends used to take part in one. I could never commit to even a few hours of something like that – much as I’d love to one day. I just can’t withdraw from all my responsibilities for such a length of time. I dream of being able to do so though!!

    • Haha, Fiona! Must say I perked up at that mention too – sitting on a blanket and having some wine, cheese and bickies while people read to me wouldn’t be hard to take methinks!

  9. I would have enjoyed hearing/watching the Odyssey performed, in fact I’ve recently been listening to Stephen Fry reading Mythos. I routinely engage in listening marathons (3 or 4 days, 14 hrs/day), but find the idea of reading as endurance competition unappealing.

  10. I love the idea of this. And I remember there being something by Paul Auster in NYC that, at the time, I lamented not being close enough to enjoy. But in reality, I probably prefer my own, private self-imposed and free-to-interrupt-if-required marathon-y events.

    • Haha, I understand that Buried. Overall I would too. I think I’d be most interested in events that have a purple we I believed in, like the one I took part in, or a work I really loved and knew, like an Austen!

  11. My curiosity was aroused so I had to do my own research about possible events in the Uk – unfortunately there is a large city called Reading which happens to have a very successful marathon (the hot and sweaty kind) so Google was less then helpful…… I did remember something that was done on BBC radio years ago where they had a reading of Moby Dick over several days with a different narrator for each section including the guy who became a Prime Minister of the UK. Does that count???

    • Haha, I reckon that counts. I must admit it was a hard topic to search. Luckily I didn’t have your problem of a town called Reading with a marathon, but I did get – and you probably did too – a lot of books about marathons.

      I love that you did your own research!

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