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Penn Staters “Escape It All” at the 2021 Marathon Read

By Phoebe Cykosky, the 2021-2022 CALS Undergraduate Intern

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Co-organizers Gabriela Puscama (above) and Nancy Andrus (below) introduce the 2021 Marathon Read
With its “Escape It All” theme, the 2021 Marathon Read, held on September 9, provided a much-needed outlet for a Penn State community coping with the ongoing pandemic. However, the one thing the annual event could not escape from was Zoom. “This year's event was a bit atypical, since we decided to hold it on Zoom for safety reasons,” said Gabriela Puscama, a PhD candidate in Spanish and Language Science and one of the event organizers. “However, this also made the event very special, because we were able to invite people to participate from outside of State College,” with participants signing into the event from as far away as Argentina. 

From 10AM-10PM, participants took turns reading from a selection of texts from around the world that are inspired, albeit in distinct ways, by the “escape from reality into alternative realities” theme. They included Japanese author Tawada Yoko's short story collection March Was Made of Yarn; Humus by French novelist Fabienne Kanor; the much beloved novella Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; Wolfgang Herrndorf’s bestselling novel Tschick; La invención de Morel [The Invention of Morel] by Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares; Italian author Italo Calvino’s story collection Marcovaldo; and 北京折叠 [Folding Beijing] by Chinese science fiction writer Hao Jingfang.

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Charlotte Eubanks reads a story by Tawada Yoko, in Japanese
The diverse range of texts appealed to readers and listeners alike. Joe Bueter, Assistant Teaching Professor of English and organizer of last year’s Marathon Read, noted that while the event’s organization and virtual hand-offs between readers were among its many positive features, the linguistic variety of the featured texts was especially engrossing. “More than anything else, it was great to read something I had no experience with and to hear someone after me read in German,” Bueter said. “The exposure to new literature and language is an exciting and engaging part of the Marathon Read experience.”  Likewise, for Charlotte Eubanks, Department Head of Comparative Literature, the opportunity to read from a rich variety of texts allowed her to share her class materials with the general public. “I've taught Tawada's short stories in 400-level Japanese language classes before and they're always really interesting because she has such crazy verbal play, so it was really fun to get to read March Was Made of Yarn aloud and experience it in real time,” Eubanks said.

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Yvonne Gaudelius reads from “Le Petit Prince”
Recently appointed Vice President and Dean of Undergraduate Education Yvonne Gaudelius was among those who read at the event. Gaudelius remarked that she felt one of the most interesting elements of the Marathon Read was the way different texts interwove with one another. “The texts moved seamlessly from one to the other and really spoke to the power of reading and the power of reading aloud,” Gaudelius said. “Whether someone can join the Marathon Read for five minutes or five hours, this communal act of reading and listening brings us together.” When Gaudelius entered the Zoom room, Richard Page, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies in the College of the Liberal Arts, was reading from Tschick in the original German. After Page finished, Gaudelius began reading from an English translation of Le Petit Prince.

Others were able to read at the event for the first time, including Elizabeth King, a 1979 graduate of the College of the Liberal Arts. King is no stranger to giving back to Penn State: she started an undergraduate scholarship for students in the School of Hospitality Management in 2011, and currently serves as a mentor to students in that program. Participating in the Marathon Read, where she read from Stitching A Whirlwind: An Anthology of Southern African Poems and Translations, was a new way for King to contribute to the Penn State community, an experience that was both exciting and challenging. “It was exciting but also challenging to read because the names in the poems were South African, and I had to do a lot of preparation to try to do some justice to the beautiful names and the poems themselves,” King said.

Like Bueter, Eubanks, and Gaudelius, King appreciated how the event allowed for speakers to read from various languages, which she suggested increased the complexity of the readings. “Not only were the readers very interesting and diverse, but some read in both the native language and English,” King noted. Puscama echoed King’s sentiments, saying, “we were delighted listening to literature in languages like Arabic, Zulu, Mandarin, Japanese and many, many others.” 

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Richard Page reads in German from “Tschick”
Both King and Puscama were impressed too by the overall energy and excitement generated across the twelve-hour event.  “This is an incredible experience, to be in contact with so many literary works, in so many languages,” Puscama offered. “And it's a great way to remember that we're not alone in this world, and that our feelings, fears and joys can resonate with people from other languages and cultures.”

Eubanks echoed Puscama’s sentiments about the array of feelings evoked by this unique public reading event.  “If you were lucky enough to have people who read to you when you were a kid, you'll remember that feeling of being enveloped by a story and a voice,” Eubanks said. “The Marathon Read is a great chance to reactivate that feeling.”