Is it best to take your time with books that are difficult to read? In our third teaser for Kill Your Darlings issue 26, Jerath Head explores the reading groups around the world devoting decades to one.
It’s our first meeting back at Avid for the year next week. Hope to see you all there. At the last meeting we actually finished the third chapter. We’re now well into the second page of chapter four: page 76. Dizzying speed.’
Each month, the notice for an upcoming Finnegans Wake reading group arrives in my inbox. The group, which meets at Brisbane’s Avid Reader Bookshop and Café, is one of dozens spread from Australia, to the United States, to Switzerland. Rather than a concerted network, however, they largely became aware of each other only after starting: the Sydney group, for instance, began in 2004, whereas Brisbane has only been reading since 2013.
The sessions at Avid are open to anyone and, despite the organiser, Tony Thwaites, being a literary academic and a Joyce scholar, many attendees – pastor, merchant seaman, medical doctor, to name a few – have little more qualification than an affinity for language and literature in general. And the input is certainly not one-sided.
For anyone who has read, or at least attempted to read, Joyce’s radically experimental opus, the irony in the email may not seem all that ironic. The Wake – an abbreviation used, it seems to me, to emphasis the event of it all – is 656 pages of obfuscation; it contains puns in some 70 languages, it coins phrases, invents words and meanders in and out of comprehensibility. It is a book you can spend a lifetime reading without having a firm grasp on, but for those inclined towards dark humour and absurdity it is also a wonderfully complex practical joke. And, despite a good deal of negative reception on its publication in 1939, Finnegans Wake has earned a place in the literary canon as a work of inscrutable brilliance (or perhaps brilliant madness).
Its obscurity stokes readers’ curiosity and unites them in their efforts to decode it. Not that this effect is all that unique: books unite people the world over in their appreciation of them. But the complexity of a book such as Finnegans Wake invites more sophisticated readings, and reading it together, discussing and unravelling its meaning in concert with others, allows for a simultaneous diversity of interpretations, and fosters a greater social intimacy by turning the act into a shared labour.
The terrifically slow pace of the Wake group – two to three pages a night, and projected to finish in 2039 – might not be for everyone, but there is something in it that speaks much more broadly to the concerns of a modern, accelerating society.