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A Method to the Madness: The 2015 Marathon Read

The fourth annual Penn State Marathon Read was held on September 24, 2015. CALS undergraduate intern Adison Godfrey provides a personal reflection on attending the event for the first time.

Beneath a tent that was filled with people even in the small hours, lights burned into the night and voices carried across a quiet campus as individuals came together for one shared purpose: to read. From September 24-25, the fourth annual Penn State Marathon Read was held in front of the Pattee/Paterno Library. With selections from short stories and novellas such as The Turn of the Screw, Diary of a Madman, and “The Yellow Wallpaper” (among others), the theme of this year’s marathon read was madness—a theme fitting in more ways than one. For many onlookers, including myself, the way in which oral reading proceeds can be maddening, coupled with the fact that readers have the option of reading these texts in their source languages. However, both the unusual format of the marathon read and its multilingual dimension create a sense of community, an objective that is at the heart of the event.

Throughout the twenty-four hour duration of the Marathon Read, students, faculty, and members of the community are able to sign up to read for five-minute intervals. Last year was the first in which more than one book was read; this year, the breadth of selection was even more expansive, though it centered on one central theme. I arrived at approximately 8 p.m., midway through A Madman’s Diary. By this time, the lights around the perimeter were lit, imbuing the tent with an inviting quality. I eagerly took a seat in the back and began to listen. Soon enough, however, my eagerness was overcome by impending frustration as I realized that I had no idea how the story began. For someone who had intended to follow along, I found this both off-putting and alienating. As I listened to reader after reader, questions about what was going on and what I had missed kept looping through my mind.

As the event progressed into the night, I found my discomfort easing as I continued to listen. The point of the Marathon Read is less about following the plot line and more about experiencing it. I had the distinct pleasure of listening to readings in Chinese, Russian, and Portuguese. I wholly enjoyed hearing these stories in their source languages, an experience that I otherwise would not have had due to my own language limitations. However, this multilingual aspect of the read did beg the question: what does the ability to read and listen to texts in multiple languages add to the event? Why did this feel decidedly less alienating to me than listening to readings in English? I asked both onlookers and participants to share their thoughts on the read’s multilingual dimension. One volunteer felt that this dimension added diversity to the read; another enjoyed hearing non-native English speakers read with confidence and fluidity in their native languages, highlighting their strengths and abilities. Perhaps the most profound insights, however, came from the readers themselves.

Yiwen Xie, a participant in the read, read an excerpt from Diary of a Madman in Chinese and then again in English. After a reading is conducted in another language, the next speaker reads that same excerpt in English, ensuring that no audience member is left behind (though I found this inescapable due to the nature of oral performance). Xie was unique in the fact that she read the English translation of her excerpt as well, rather than the next reader. When asked what this was like, Xie highlighted the differences between the original and the translation, stating that the translation oftentimes attenuated the force of the text. She confided that the English translation was milder and less impassioned than the original, an insight that would have otherwise been lost. Luiza Lodder, another participant, read an excerpt from The Alienist in Portuguese. She expressed her excitement when she saw that, for the first time in the read’s history, a text was offered in Portuguese; she stated that Brazilian literature is very rich but does not enjoy the same level of visibility as other Hispanic texts. Of her experience reading, she shared that it made her feel proud of her language, and that she was happy to have the opportunity to share her language with others.

Though some may find the multilingual dimension of the read maddening, Lodder hits on what makes this dimension integral to the read. Through my experience, I have discovered that the marathon read is about fostering a sense of community, more so than about reading and fully absorbing the various texts. Admittedly, I cannot recount the plots of any of these stories, despite my efforts to follow along in the beginning. Perhaps this is why I found solace in the multilingual aspect of the read—as I listened to readings in other languages, I did not feel the urge to follow along and understand everything. Instead, as the hours stretched on, I was content to sit beneath the tent and be soothed by the cadence of readers’ voices. It did not matter the reader’s age, or background, or nationality. This, I believe, is the true strength of the Penn State Marathon Read, and the method to its madness: beneath that tent, individuals from all walks of life come together to share a love of literature, and to create a space where voices can be heard.


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