James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has been billed as one of the most difficult works of literature ever written in English, and soon after its publication in 1939, reading groups devoted to tackling the opus began popping up. Today, there are Finnegans Wake groups everywhere from Dublin to Bozeman to Adelaide, and they often last for years.
“We read a passage aloud, discuss until we can discuss no more, and then move on to the next, and have been doing so since 2009,” one group writes on the Finnegans Wake reading group directory. The book is more than 400 pages long, and it’s not unusual for reading groups to spend a full session dissecting just a page or two. In 2010, one group in Boston celebrated the end of the novel with booze and a ritual chant of the novel’s first/last sentence. The members had been working their way through the book for 13 years.
A Los Angles-based reading group, however, had a different approach. It met after hours in a used bookstore every Sunday night at 11 p.m. and barreled through 20 to 40 pages in each session, says the blog Finnegans, Wake! One member explained:
…I wouldn’t exactly describe them as speed-readings; we would gather around in a circle at Alias Books, lock the doors, and read out loud… we decided to experiment with our reading, not take the book so seriously, and let the experience of reading it takeover.
For instance, during one reading–I wish I could remember where we were in the book–for some reason, almost simultaneously, we all got up and started walking around the bookstore in a single file line, up and down the aisles, until either the page or the paragraph was finished. I do remember we were a fair way through FW, and had learned how to read its rhythms and pauses, and somehow we all agreed to physically mimic them in that one moment.
It took this group only “about seven to eight months” to finish the book.
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