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?

My literary week (15), readings and readers

As regular readers here know, my “literary week” posts are irregular affairs, usually inspired by something I really want to share (or document for my own benefit!) And so it is this week …

Reading Boochani in public … and related thoughts

Public reading No Friend but the MountainsI was especially pleased, given the events in Christchurch last Friday week, that I’d been asked to take part in an all-day public reading of the book No friend but the mountains, written by Kurdish-Iranian poet and Manus Island detainee, Behrouz Boochani. The reading was organised by local writer (and ex-work colleague) Sarah St Vincent Welch, with the support of the Canberra Refugee Action Committee. It took place in Canberra’s Garema Place on Thursday March 21, which happened to be World Poetry Day and World Harmony Day. The reading started at 8.15am and went through into the early hours of the evening, with my 10-minute slot taking place in the early afternoon. It was a privilege to be one of the 60 readers, most of whom were local poets, taking part in the event.

As we all know, it’s strange how events and ideas can coalesce. We have, here in Australia, a current affairs television program called The Drum. It’s a panel discussion show and, earlier this week, in the wake of Christchurch, they had an all-Muslim women panel. It was confronting, but it reinforced the ideas that are also embedded in Growing up Aboriginal in Australia (my review), and that also reflect the experience of the detainees. Each situation is different in specifics and history, but Muslims, indigenous people, and asylum-seekers know what it is like to be reviled. Each member of these groups wakes up each and every day, wondering what act of prejudice or hatred they might confront*. It’s truly appalling.

If only naysayers and decisionmakers would stop, listen and/or read, and imagine walking, for just a moment even, in another’s shoes, they might think again about their actions. This is not about class or religion or wealth or education (though they are implicated in the bigger picture), but about human feeling. I know I speak from a position of fortune – I can’t change that – but I can try to do my bit to lessen the load.


Two of my recent posts resulted in short story recommendations that I thought worth sharing, though I haven’t yet had time to follow them up myself:
  • Ian Darling, commenting on my post on Rudyard Kipling’s story “The Janeites”, recommended an earlier Kipling story, “Mary Postgate” (available online), originally published in 1915. Ian describes it as “a fearful mixture of hate and compassion.” Sounds eerily relevant doesn’t it?
  • Lisa (ANZLitLovers), commenting on my Monday Musings post on the NSW Premier’s Translation Prize, recommended an Indonesian short story translated by one of this year’s shortlistees, Harry Aveling. The story is “The biography of a newborn baby” and is by Raudal Tanjung Banua (available online).

I will try to read them in the next week or so, once I’ve read this week’s reading group book!


Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much LipReaders are interesting beasts really (and I use the term affectionately!) We differ greatly in what we like to read, what we think is good, what we think is worth reading. I was interested to read, after writing my post on Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip, Karen Wyld’s very thorough review in the Sydney Review of Books. Late in the review she comments on the challenge for readers:
Too Much Lip is, of course, not the first novel to include family violence or to expose its colonial roots. There are, however, risks with telling stories like these. Non-Indigenous readers could fail to recognise the strength of culture to mitigate intergenerational trauma, and not understand its roots in colonial violence and systemic racism. Some readers might see the Salters through an over-used deficit model, or believe they have the solutions to ‘fix’ Indigenous families. Instead, the Salters’ story shows how ineffective governments have been in trying to patch up the wounds of colonisation through paternalistic and draconian approaches. Some readers might find it hard to grapple with the violence in this novel. And some might find it hard to forgive the Salter siblings’ creative disregard for the law. It’s important to remember that this book is a piece of fiction but it is grounded in reality.
If there is a risk of non-Indigenous readers misconstruing parts of this novel, how can First Nations writers mitigate such risks? In most cases they can’t, and they shouldn’t have to. The responsibility of interpretation and the heavy lifting of expanding one’s worldviews and letting go of ingrained prejudices lies with the reader [my emphasis].
Too much lip is an exciting read, but it is also a confronting one that can easily lend itself to judgement if not moralising. I love that Wyld discusses this potential head on.

Quote of the week

I included a Quote of the Week in my last literary week post, and can’t resist including one again. It comes from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Janeites” (linked above):
“… there’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place. …”
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what this means, even if you haven’t read the post!
* Well, asylum-seeker detainees probably have a good idea, as every day brings the same, but I think you take my point.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading aloud in colonial Australia

At the end of last week’s Monday Musings post on literary culture in colonial Australia, I commented that author Elizabeth Webby had also discussed the practice of reading aloud, and that I might do a future post on that. Well, not only might I, but I’ve decided to do it this week because I was fascinated. (Just to recap, last week’s post drew from Webby’s lecture titled “Reading in colonial Australia”, which is available online). And, would you believe, February 1 is World Read Aloud Day!

So, I’ll start briefly with Webby’s discussion and then move on to some of my own research, from Trove of course. She starts by saying that reading aloud remained popular throughout the nineteenth century alongside a rise in silent, individual reading. She writes:

Those worried about the excessive reading of fiction by women and young people were particularly keen to encourage the domestic practice of reading aloud. A father reading aloud to his family in the evening formed an ideal Victorian domestic scene: he could monitor what was being consumed by his wife, sons and daughters; they had the advantage of his company and attention.

(There’s that gender issue again!) She shares information gleaned from diaries. One mother, for example, would not allow Shakespeare while another was very happy to read from Dumas’ 8-volume Celebrated crimes (1839-1841). Webby says this “reminds us that individual readers have always been free to set their own rules about what should be read, ignoring the more restrictive norms of their times.” She also discusses the encouragement of reading aloud for women (“as an alternative to idle gossip as they sewed or carried out other more sedentary household jobs”) and bush-workers (“as a more profitable alternative to gambling and yarning”), and the ongoing concern about what was read (but I discussed some of that last week.)

A modern author reading: Malouf reading from Ransom, NLA, 16/8/2009

Webby then describes the rise of “penny reading” in the second half of the nineteenth century. This is the practice of attending public readings for the cost of a penny. While Dickens never toured Australia, as he had Britain and the USA, readings from his books were popular at these penny readings, which were apparently popular in Victoria. There were also “philanthropic” souls who read, free-of-charge, to hospital patients and prison inmates. Webby suggests that regarding readings for prisoners, the authorities would have seen them as having value as “cheap entertainment combined with a controlled use of fiction as a means of moral reformation”. There was, she says, a strong continuing belief in “the humanising value of literature”.

What I found in Trove*

Having read Webby’s discussion, I was keen to see if the topic was discussed in newspapers of the time – and my, was it! It seemed particularly popular in papers of the later nineteenth century, with much of the commentary I found coming from the 1870s. It was generally earnest, and had two main threads: the importance of reading aloud well; and the value of reading aloud (along with a concern that people weren’t doing enough of it).

A long article by Sarah Ellis in the Sydney Morning Herald on 21 January 1870 starts with:

Amongst the accomplishments which belong to education of the highest order, reading aloud ought certainly to hold a prominent place – that is, the art of reading aloud so as to give the full meaning of what is read, and at the same time to charm the ear of those who listen.

She then discusses how reading aloud is so often unsatisfactory, how people adopt a voice that doesn’t change or adapt to the meaning of what they are reading. She suggests that one of the causes is the reduction of reading aloud in the home. Poor education is another cause but an article in the Mount Alexander Mail (25 October 1878) reports on a lecture by Mr T.P. Hill, a well-known elocutionist of the time, who discusses the finding of school inspectors “that this neglected, but important branch of elementary education was moving forward in the right direction”. Unfortunately, though, “in a few districts … complaints were made of the monotonous and sing-song manner in which the voice was allowed to degenerate”.

My final example regarding the issue of reading aloud well, raises again the gender issue. It comes from the Avoca Mail (26 June 1877):

It is much to be regretted that the charming accomplishment of reading aloud is not more cultivated by ladies. … To do this well, a certain amount of study is requisite. First of all, it is necessary to acquire a habit of sustaining the voice; then one must learn to modulate the tones, to attend to the punctuation, and, above all, the reader must have a fair appreciation of the author’s meaning. This involves a study of English literature, which is so sadly needed by most young ladies who are supposed to have a finished education.

Oh dear, those “young ladies”, eh? Gender also comes up in the aforementioned Sarah Ellis’s article, and here I shift into the issue of why people should read aloud. Reading aloud, she says, can “increase the number of our innocent enjoyments”, “make the social hours of life glide pleasantly along”, and “prevent them from becoming vapid or wearisome”. She then separately identifies the value for women and men:

Amongst women, this accomplishment might go far to help them in filling their homes with interest; amongst men, it would help them on all public occasions, when called upon to speak or read.

Oh well, that was then – a woman’s place was in the home. We wouldn’t expect anything different, would we? I should add that Ellis spends some time discussing the best book to read aloud, the Bible, which Webby says would have been the “most-read” book in colonial Australia.

So, reading aloud was seen as good for family togetherness, for entertainment, for education, and for usefulness in the outside world. Indeed, in terms of the latter, the writer in the Ovens and Murray Advertiser (13 October 1877), reporting on another lecture by Mr T.P. Hill, describes it as “an art which at the Bar might save lives, which in the Senate might save nations, and which in the Pulpit might save souls”. Meanwhile, in terms of the former more recreational value, Ellis overlays a moral value, describing it as a “counter charm of a social and intelligent nature to take the place of pleasures which are purely sensational”!

I will end, though, with another reason which you mightn’t have seen coming. It’s from the Queenslander (6 February 1897):

The late Sir Henry Holland says in his ‘”Medical Notes” that persons who have a tendency to pulmonary disease should methodically practice “those actions of the body through which the chest is in part filled or emptied of air.” He advises that those whose chests are weak should read aloud at stated intervals …

World Read Aloud Day 2018See, reading aloud really is good for you!

Do you have any experience of reading aloud as an adult, either reading or listening (besides, that is, reading to children), and if so, I’d love to hear about it? Audiobooks? Live reading?

* Note that when I say Trove, I mean its digitised newspapers subset, because Trove, in fact, currently covers over 560 million “Australian and online resources: books, images, historic newspapers, maps, music, archives and more”. Note, too, that many of the articles I found appeared in many newspapers around the country.