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?