To a college freshman, the poetry of John Milton's Paradise Lost can seem daunting. Thousands of lines and long sections chronicling fallen angels can turn off even the most ambitious aspiring scholar, especially in an era of constant distractions and 140-character tweets.
So when Hamilton College professor Margaret Thickstun wanted her students to examine the text for a second time, she sought an approach other than the standard reading homework. She became one of a number of professors across the country to assemble her class for a day and read a great work out loud.
While the oral reading is as old as literature itself, it is not the norm on campuses. But faculty members and students who have participated in such readings say the events help convey messages, engage students, and foster community on their campuses in ways that reading alone cannot do. "Until you hear another student read it in his or her own voice, you don't really understand the vast possibilities for interpretation," said Dillon Jackson, one of Thickstun's students.
Some texts lend themselves to this practice more easily than others, whether because of literary tradition, length, or subject matter, and tend to turn up at these events more often.
The works of Homer, for instance, which were originally transmitted through oral storytelling, are a common choice. James Joyce's Ulysses, which recounts one man's experience on June 16, 1904, is traditionally read out loud every year on that day's anniversary, known as "Bloomsday." The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Dante's Inferno, and Moby Dick pop up fairly regularly.
But Paradise Lost, Milton's 17th-century epic retelling of the biblical story of the fall of man, seems to be the campus favorite. Its length (about 10-12 hours), structure (it can easily be broken down into readable chunks), and rhythm lend themselves almost perfectly, scholars say, to a daylong reading.
"Milton is meant to be heard, not just seen," said John C. Ulreich, a Milton scholar at the University of Arizona. "Milton was blind when he wrote it. But he could hear it. When you hear it out loud you get meanings, especially emotional meanings, you wouldn't get any other way."
In November, Ulreich led his 13th annual Milton marathon. Even back in 1998, when he started the tradition on the Arizona campus, there was talk on Milton listservs about readings at other universities. Colleges that held readings of the work in 2010 include the Claremont Colleges, University of Richmond, University of Minnesota, and University of Notre Dame, among others.
Thickstun held her second reading of Paradise Lost in February. She said the readings also help students deal with 17th-century language with which they might not be familiar and determine how the poem's meter affects the narrative. "Poetry, by nature, is a very oral medium," she said. "It's almost the expectation of the poet that you're hearing the work out loud."
In November, a professor at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro held a 24-hour-long reading of Tolstoy's War and Peace, which made national headlines. The university also held its own Homer-a-thon, reading the Odyssey in April. Students at Augsburg College read parts of Ulysses aloud between April 13 and May 4. On April 28, students at Rutgers University read Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn aloud as part of the school's annual Rutgers Day celebration.
The marathon readings take various forms. Ulreich and Thickstun both said their readings are relatively low-key, with the class renting out space in a library and simply taking turns reading passages. Students can come and go as they please.
Others tend to make the readings into more of a spectacle. When he held his first Homer reading this year, Mike Lippman, a classics professor at the University of Arizona, set up a tent in a well-traveled area of campus. He invited belly-dancers, some local actors, and a lyre player, and obtained a permit to light torches. His class's reading of the Iliad lasted for 21 hours, and he said the majority of his roughly 70 students stayed for the entire event.
"You have to make a carnival out of it," Lippman said. "If you break it up with jokes and food, it breaks up some of the dry parts. The dynamic of the whole day really helped raise it from school to a form of entertainment."
The readings, by nature, tend to attract attention. Professors and students both said administrators and other campus personalities tend to stop by. At Thickstun's reading, the university president read the part of God for a while, which students found entertaining.
Not every marathon reading seeks to achieve an educational end. In 2009, the Office of Interfaith Community Engagement at Xavier University, a Roman Catholic college in Cincinnati, held a marathon reading of the Old Testament to foster campus unity. The reading lasted 56 hours and included sections in 27 different languages.
"It was really very beautiful," said Rabbi Abie Ingber, founding director of the office. "It's a recognition of the beauty of the text, but also of how our world has changed. With ease we could pull up a translation in minutes and someone could read a native Sri Lankan language."
Rich Rice, a professor at Texas Tech University, said he has been hosting marathon readings to help various causes since he was a graduate student. He raises money by getting sponsorships and then donates the money to literacy programs.
"Students like to be part of something larger," Rice said in an e-mail. He said he has worked with other schools to organize similar events and is always looking to spread the program.
The faculty members who conducted such readings say they are likely to do so again.
"Because this year's was so good, I feel like there's going to be so much build-up for next year's," said Lippman, who added that he hopes to take on the Odyssey.