Now is the season for marathon readings — gatherings when folks read entire books aloud, from Paradise Lost to Harry Potter volumes. If you're a fan of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, you would have had a whale of a time at the 24-hour marathon last weekend cosponsored by the Independence Seaport Museum and the Rosenbach. And a whole lot of "Frankenreads" — Halloween readings of Frankenstein — are upon us.
It's impossible to prove, but some think marathon readings are on the rise at bookstores, museums, schools, and universities everywhere. Many are the readings of The Odyssey or Iliad, The Great Gatsby, War and Peace, The Color Purple, and other texts. The most-honored book may be James Joyce's Ulysses, read on June 16, "Bloomsday," every year across the world, including at the Rosenbach. The Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania does at least one marathon every year; this year's selection was We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.
Why? These are community-building events. They're parties, often to celebrate anniversaries (this year, Frankenstein; next year, Melville). And they're ways to meet a book you just never got to before.
Seriously, reading aloud brings the written word to life. At the Moby-Dick-athon, the bracing American voice of this dreaded, carnivorous classic came through. Especially chuckle-worthy were the chapters in which our narrator, Ishmael, shares a bed with his cannibal pal, Queequeg.
Moby-Dick began on the USS Olympia, the famous cruiser docked on the Delaware. Then a few celebs piled into a boat and rowed to the Independence Seaport Museum, where the reading resumed from the prow of the schooner Diligence. It went from about 7:30 p.m. Friday night to about dusk on Saturday.
"Next year is the bicentenary of Melville's birth," said Edward G. Pettit, manager of public programs at the Rosenbach, "so we wanted to do this now so we get it right for next year."
Charles McMahon, founding artistic director of the Lantern Theater Company, stunned the audience with a blazing rendition of Father Mapple's monumental sermon (Chapter 9) just before 9 p.m. At about 10, I read "Chapter 14: Nantucket." Only 121 more chapters and an Epilogue to go!
Around midnight, actor Carlo Campbell drew perhaps the hardest chapter of all, "Chapter 32: Cetology" — a famously hairy summary of current whale science of the day. "I'm going to give it as much vocal and dramatic torque as I can," he said before the reading. "Hey, I would listen to Morgan Freeman read the phone book. But Moby-Dick is immensely more colorful."
This year is the 200th anniversary of the first publication of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, written by Mary Shelley and published on Jan. 1, 1818 (when she was only 20). Thanks largely to a program called Frankenreads, more than 540 institutions in more than 40 countries worldwide have been, are, or will be hosting discussions, exhibits, musicals, ballets, movie nights, and marathons.
Though no official Frankenreads are scheduled for Philadelphia proper, during "Frankenweek" (Oct. 24-31), they're crackling like a lab of arc lights in Bethlehem, Lehigh University, and Princeton.
The climax is on Halloween, Oct. 31, with a marathon reading of Frankenstein in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress in Washington starting at 9 a.m. and continuing for about nine hours. The public is invited, and the whole shebang will be live-streamed at youtube.com/user/LibraryOfCongress. Thousands will read along, including at the Bethlehem Area Public Library, on Halloween from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Elizabeth Dolan, associate professor of English at Lehigh University, first breathed life into the whole Frankenthing. A couple of years ago, she was at a meeting of the Keats-Shelley Association of America. "Everyone was discussing the approaching 200th anniversary," she said, "and I just happened to say, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could have a Bloomsday-type reading of the whole book?' "
Neil Fraistat, chairman of the association, ran with it. Tottering, lurching, Frankenreads was born.
Dolan is organizing the reading, a discussion series, and a film series, all free. "I couldn't believe how quickly our sign-up list for the reading filled up," Dolan said. "The mayor of Bethlehem had the first spot; he made sure of that." The final book discussion, on Volume III, is at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 29, at the Bethlehem Area Public Library. As for movies, Young Frankenstein screens at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 26, at Lehigh University's Sinclair Auditorium; and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein screens at 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27. "We filled the [SteelStacks Banko Alehouse Cinema] for the 1931 Boris Karloff Frankenstein," Dolan said. "That's 190 seats."
Does Fraistat, a professor of English and director of the Maryland Institute for Technology at the University of Maryland, ever survey the vast Franken-orgy and wonder, "Have I created a monster"?
"We never expected it to reach this scale," he said. "It's an astonishing, overwhelming response, from unexpected places such as China, Eastern Europe, Latin America. That just speaks to the enduring fascination of Frankenstein and its themes."
At Princeton, professor Susan Wolfson will host a three-night reading Oct. 31-Nov. 2, one volume a night. She said the list filled up with "from 65 to 70 readers" quickly. "We start at 6:30," she said, "and we'll wrap up each night at around 10:30 p.m. We're also showing the 1910 Thomas Edison movie, the first film treatment of Frankenstein." She started stitching plans together in the spring, "and as the list of readers swells, it becomes a mini-camp."
What is it about this story? "It's the first sci-fi book," Dolan said, "and the figure of the creature, the ultimate outsider, it's very magnetic." Magnetic — I see what you did there.
Wolfson said the book was resurrected in the 1980s "as a go-to text for feminist studies," a watershed novel written by a very young, nonconformist woman. "But it also taps into deep cultural anxieties and issues," Wolfson said, "especially about the new science. Even today, the prefix Franken- gets attached to anything alarming, most recently with genetically engineered foods and genomic editing."
"People come wanting to talk about the ideas in the story," Dolan said. "We want to talk about something deeply meaningful that's not politics." What an age we're in — when we need monsters and whales to help us create community.