Pages from history

Reading marathons spur imaginations and help bring classic literary works to life

Mark Ballard puts voice to page during a marathon reading of “The House of the Seven Gables.’’ Mark Ballard puts voice to page during a marathon reading of “The House of the Seven Gables.’’ (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / August 7, 2011

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The cynical description of the portly antagonist set Beth Gerwig off in giggles. Seated in a wooden armchair, she chuckled and sniffled as she read aloud Chapter 8 of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The House of the Seven Gables.’’

The small crowd in front of her laughed along at the colorful literary portrait of Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon.

“It’s elegant, sophisticated language,’’ Gerwig, of Newburyport, said after a half-hour of reciting pages as part of a marathon reading on July 4 at the classic novel’s namesake Salem setting. “It’s very complicated to read, a mouthful of beautiful words. We don’t talk like this anymore.’’

Reading aloud is a tradition that dates to antiquity, a sort of literary heirloom handed down to each epoch. And today - despite (or perhaps because of) the pervasiveness of technology and the digital shift in the way we approach the written word - the custom endures, particularly through nonstop, marathon reading events.

“There’s something very lovely about the human voice bringing these works of poetry and epic and fiction to life,’’ said Sue Weaver Schopf, an associate dean at Harvard University Extension School, who has organized uninterrupted orations of John Milton’s 17th-century “Paradise Lost’’ three times, most recently at the Salem Athenaeum in February. “Because we have cast our lot with technology so completely in the last decade or so, I think there is a hunger in people for this kind of communal experience that’s really very direct.’’

Reading marathons honor works merely a few years old, aged by centuries, or spanning millennia; Homer’s “The Iliad’’ and “The Odyssey’’ are particular favorites, as are the Bible and James Joyce’s “Ulysses’’ (which is celebrated on June 16, or “Bloomsday,’’ every year, which is especially fitting because it’s set within a 24-hour period). Seminal American works include “Moby-Dick,’’ which is read nonstop cover-to-cover at the New Bedford Whaling Museum every year, while some bring newer classics into the mix. A group in Hull, for example, recently read “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’’ from beginning to end.

Other ambitious types (including students at Wellesley College last spring) attempt to read all of Shakespeare’s works, while the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst stages an annual reading of all 1,789 of the reclusive writer’s poems.

Locally, Haverhill honored John Greenleaf Whittier in 2007 with a 24-hour poetry reading by his homestead’s hearth; Lowell celebrated Jack Kerouac with a full reading of “On the Road’’ that same year; and every spring, students and staff at Tufts University in Medford read a different ancient tome for several consecutive hours over a couple of days.

Those who organize and participate in such literary endurance tests say they provide an immersive experience, exposing both the intricacies of the language as well as the story in a way that a person can’t get when reading silently and alone.

It’s like “eating a meal slowly, enjoying every bite,’’ Ron Finlayson of Newton said of hearing “The House of the Seven Gables’’ read aloud on July 4 to honor both Hawthorne’s birthday and the 160th anniversary of the book’s printing.

“You’re focusing on every sentence,’’ agreed Tiffany Hill of Salem, who also sat in on the reading. “It brings the details out, paints more of a complete picture.’’

And in the case of more difficult classical works involving multisyllabic words or prose lost with the generations, obscure proper nouns and antiquated terms and references, it can become more tangible, like a play, said Schopf, instead of words just lying flat and daunting on a page.

“Epic poetry is an oral tradition; it’s not really meant to be read as a book in the quiet of your room,’’ she said.

Schopf, who lectures on English literature, organized the “Paradise Lost’’ event in February in conjunction with a class dedicated to the work; it attracted roughly 70 people who read between 50 and 100 lines each, ultimately finishing in 11 1/2 hours.

Schopf noted how ancient writers and poets specifically crafted a cadence that was meant for the ears rather than the eyes. And because we tend to read silently in a sort of monotone, the nuances of different voices - such as God, Jesus, Satan, Adam, and Eve, in the case of “Paradise Lost’’ - can be lost or overlooked, she said.

But when read aloud, it becomes “a wonderful, rich drama,’’ she said.

And, others say, an unbound journey.

“We can create our own mental show, our own mental set of visuals,’’ said Tufts lecturer Susan Setnik, who co-organizes the college’s annual marathon readings. “We can each create our own idea of who is the hero, who is beautiful, instead of having the faces given to us by Hollywood, or even painters from 2,500 years ago. When we create them in our own minds, they’re even more powerful.’’

The university’s classics department has fostered this kind of experience for 20-plus years, typically holding readings for several hours over two days in April. It usually attracts 60 to 75 current and prospective students, staff, faculty, and parents, with readings in 10-minute shifts, Setnik said. Over the years, they’ve covered Homer’s works several times, Virgil’s “Aeneid,’’ selections from Thucydides, and Herodotus. This year, the selections were “Medea’’ by Euripides, and “The Argonautica’’ by Apollonius.

Ultimately, Setnik said, it’s an experience that is consistent with the “oral, original tradition of literature.’’

It’s that tradition that the House of the Seven Gables is looking to carry on. The historic landmark plans to make an annual event out of Hawthorne readings on July 4. Next year, though, organizers may allot a little more time: The event was scheduled for nine hours, went 10, and readers got through about 85 percent of the book, according to organizers.

Starting at 9:30 a.m. and ending at 7:30 p.m., roughly 20 people read in half-hour blocks, seated on a small stage in a library-quiet room set off the lobby.

Clustered around in a semicircle of seats, visitors read along with paperback versions of the 1851 Gothic novel. Some couples leaned together to share; others watched the reader, or focused on something off in the distance; one woman worked on a weaving project.

Pages turned in unison; people quietly filtered in and out; tourists passed by windows framed by leaves waving in the sea breeze; a painting of Hawthorne overlooked the proceedings.

At each half-hour, the readers changed seamlessly; at 1:30, Gerwig stepped up, sat, slipped on her reading glasses, rested her elbows on the curly arms of the chair, and began where the previous reader, author Brunonia Barry, had left off, at the tail end of Chapter 7.

“Poor Hepzibah knew this truth, or, at least, acted on the instinct of it. . . .’’

Finlayson, who watched and also read in the 3 to 3:30 time slot, described a richness to the book, which, although it’s 160 years old, he found “universal and contemporary.’’

House guide Jeff Horton, meanwhile, who sat in for a few minutes before getting back to work, described the novel as “anthropomorphic,’’ and a “great tale of retribution, karma, and curses.’’ He has read it twice (and owns a 1922 copy) and said Hawthorne’s “imaginative, descriptive abilities are beyond compare.’’

For Hill, meanwhile, it was simply an experience to hear the author’s words within the walls where they were inspired.

“I thought it would be a lot of fun to put it together,’’ she said, motioning around, “to get the spirit of it while actually being here.’’

Time to read
For “The House of the Seven Gables’’ reading July 4:
30 minutes Block of time allotted for each reader
20 Number of readers
10 hours Amount of time set aside to read the book
85 percent How much of the novel the group read in 10 hours
Author Brunonia Barry, state Representative John Keenan were celebrity readers at the event.
11.5 hours Amount of time it took to read John Milton’s “Paradise Lost’’ at the Salem Athenaeum in February.
8.5 hours Amount of time it took to finish the majority of “To Kill a Mockingbird’’ at the Salem Literary Festival last September.