Nevertheless, We Persisted–on reading Finnegans Wake
Last Wednesday evening marked a milestone for a small group of us here in Santa Cruz—we came to the end of our joint reading of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Some idea of the significance for us may be gleaned from the fact that we first began this project in April of 2009. Getting together and reading a few pages together every two or three weeks, it took us close to eight and a half years to reach our goal.
Finnegans Wake is a notoriously dense and difficult work, and even fans of Ulysses, not exactly known as an easy read itself, are divided as to whether the Wake is one of the greatest things ever written or, well, a complete waste of time. Our fate was perhaps sealed many decades ago when two of our members, coming back to their college dorm from a bar late at night, happened upon a strange experiment. Some college students had reserved a hall up on the UCSC campus and cut up a copy of Finnegans Wake into small sheets of paper. People entering the room were given one, or perhaps picked them up off the floor for all I know, and were then asked to read them aloud. The goal was apparently to get through the whole of the Wake in 24 hours, though not in any particular order. Something about the audacity and exuberance of the experiment caught my friends’ imagination and they never forgot it.
Some—many?—years later, one of them heard about a Finnegans Wake group that had been meeting in New York, reading the book aloud over the course of ten years. From there, it was only a matter of time before she persuaded some of her literary-minded friends to recreate the experiment.
There were probably about six of us who began the journey in the Poet and Patriot Pub here in Santa Cruz, where we have met faithfully ever since. A couple of people gave up early, due to time or distance problems, but four of us hung in there and over time were joined by three others, who have formed the core ever since. People have occasionally joined us for a short time before wandering off again. That’s the nature of the beast. Drop-ins were always welcome.
I wouldn’t presume to give a review of this book, which is like no other, or even try and tell you what it’s about, though I’ll throw in a few links at the bottom. I will say that all of us agree that reading Finnegans Wake together is the way to go. In that setting it becomes fun, not ponderous. You catch more of the puns when they are read aloud, and having people of various sorts of expertise and life experience to explain things certainly makes the book less opaque. Joyce was a musical sort of person and the Wake is on one level the closest that prose gets to being music, which you can appreciate best when you read it aloud.
Beer, though not necessary, certainly helps, which made the pub a great meeting place. We met early enough in the evening that it usually wasn’t too crowded, but certainly there were times that it was almost as lively a place as the pub in the Finnegan’s Wake ballad (which includes the apostrophe—the book title does not). Though I don’t remember any shillelaghs coming out, there were sometimes darts.
And, though we started off thinking we would read the book without resorting to many commentaries and definitely not our smartphones, curiosity got the better of us, and by the end we had a small library of commentaries at our disposal and had accessed the internet in a variety of ways as well. There is no one right way to read the Wake, and probably no wrong one—although I don’t think reading grimly would really be in keeping with the spirit of the work, or indeed, of Joyce himself.
In any case, we salute you, Mr. Joyce. And whatever the scoffers may say, Finnegans Wake is definitely worth it. In fact, we’re planning on taking the whole mad journey again soon.
I’ll skip the usual bio footer and replace it with a photo from that last meeting.
Finnegans Wake at Penguin Books
Waywords and Meansigns crowdsourced reading of the Wake set to music
Finnegans, Wake!–a blog from the founder of an Austin, Texas Wake group with which we have multi-layered connections
From Swerve of Shore to Bend of Bay–Peter Chrisp’s Wake blog
Finnegans Wake in Santa Cruz–our own rather intermittent blog
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