For bookish types, the equivalent of 42.195 kilometers is the reading marathon. Instead of running, you sit and listen and cheer the readers on and maybe struggle to stay alert and upright.
The complete Ulysses, every pentameter line of Paradise Lost, each word of that big book about a whale. There have been marathon readings of Catch-22 and Civilization and Its Discontents, Shakespeare’s sonnets, and even Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans.
Many a Christmas season has seen so-called marathon readings of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (though we might properly think of that one as a 5K reading).
The reading marathon is a brainy endurance test. It’s become part of our public literary culture. But the game has taken a new turn.
This year Okwui Enwezor, curator of the 2015 Venice Biennale, announced a marathon reading of Marx’s three-volume Das Kapital.
Enwezor likened the ritualized performance of Marx to the practice in the Sikh religious tradition of a continuous reading of sacred text. He might have also invoked many other rituals and performances of continuous reading. For example, the Jewish tradition engages a series of texts across the year, to be repeated when the year turns.
On a more intimate level, the faithful from the three Abrahamic religions who crowd into the subway that I take daily give every evidence of reading Scripture from alif to omega with a determination to begin all over again.
Das Kapital — the title of which has been refunctioned by Harvard University Press’s publication of Thomas Piketty’s scholarly best seller — isn’t a work of fiction or epic poetry or theology, though as I type this I realize there are Lingua Francans who may well think Marx’s magnum opus is any one of those, or maybe all three.
That Das Kapital will be read at the world’s most famous art fair, however, repositions this massive German text as something other than a massive German text.
Maybe the Biennale reading of Marx says something not just about politics and art, but about the forms in which we take delivery of ideas.
Among the what-ifs of film history, I’d rank pretty high Sergei Eisenstein’s idea of turning Das Kapital into a work of cinematic art.
Go ahead, start imagining your favorite film stars as Surplus Value and Absolute Ground Rent. I’m mentally casting the cutest film dog as Commodity Fetish.
OK, it might not be as intellectually fancy as a public reading marathon, especially an endurance-test reading of Marx, but in the the depth of summer, even academics need a little fun.
So as admiring as I am of the public reading marathon, here’s to the private marathon — the shelf of books you’ve put off all year, or want to go back to again, and will now down in rapid succession, at the beach or the mountains or merely at a bibliophilic staycation. A do-it-yourself reading marathon of, say, Montaigne, Morrison, Mahfouz, Malaparte, George R. R. Martin, and Ngaio Marsh. And that’s just the M’s.
Which gets to the question of agency: For me a reading marathon is a marathon in which I do the reading, not one in which others read to me.
Any day now, there will be a reading marathon of The Recognitions or Clarissa. I’m sure I’ll cheer on the friends who go.
But I’ll probably stay home and read a book.