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This book club finally finished 'Finnegans Wake.' It only took them 28 years

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The novel "Finnegans Wake" by Irish writer James Joyce is known as one of the most difficult to read books ever written. It's so difficult that people have formed clubs all over the world to read it out loud together, and sometimes it takes years. One club founded in Los Angeles took 28 years. They finally finished the book last month, as Anna Scott from member station KCRW reports.

ANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: "Finnegans Wake" isn't just difficult - many consider it unreadable. It doesn't follow normal storytelling conventions, you know, like consistent characters or a coherent plot. Instead, it's dreamlike, full of made-up words, puns, run-on and disjointed passages.

JOHN MCCOURT: It's a bit like trying to describe music - complex, symphonic music.

SCOTT: John McCourt is an English professor at the University of Macerata in Italy and president of the International James Joyce Foundation.

MCCOURT: For me, "Finnegans Wake" is the perfect antidote to our times, where we live under the illusion that everything can be reduced to a tweet. And what the wonderful thing about "Finnegans Wake" is that it reinstates the necessary complexity of human existence.

GERRY FIALKA: It's almost like tripping on acid.

SCOTT: This is the guy who's been reading this unreadable book for 28 years. Gerry Fialka is an experimental filmmaker who started his "Finnegans Wake" reading club at a library in LA's Venice Beach area in 1995. Fialka started the group partly because he never would have read "Finnegans Wake" on his own, but he's gotten much more from it than finishing the book.

FIALKA: I've gotten to encounter a lot of people who become my friends.

SCOTT: This group has grown and shrunk over the years. Sometimes it's been as many as 30 people, sometimes 12. Some have come and gone quickly. Others have stuck around for decades, like Steven Kedrowski, who joined the club around 2005. Now he lives in Chicago but keeps up because the group moved to Zoom during COVID.

STEVEN KEDROWSKI: Reading one page a month over 20-some years, I couldn't tell you very much about the plot. What you're really getting, sitting down for an hour and reading one page, is just really diving into the details of that specific moment.

SCOTT: And even though the group finished the book in October, they started all over again last Tuesday because to Fialka, the circular structure of "Finnegans Wake" means that it never truly ends. Back at the beginning, club members took turns reading a made-up word on the novel's first page.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnk.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Reading) Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnk.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Reading) bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner.

SCOTT: Switching readers every couple of lines, they read to the end of the page.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Reading) And their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Reading) Where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since devlinsfirst loved livvy.

FIALKA: Bravo. That was brilliant, people.

SCOTT: For the next hour or so, members dissected the words and talked about meanings and and broader themes. Nobody claimed to understand it all, but Fialka says the beauty of reading "Finnegans Wake" this way is that simply by plodding through it, readers experience flickers of insight.

FIALKA: In the midst of something that seems complex if it flips in the a-ha moment, you're like, wow. You'll have a revelation or what Joyce called - so appropriately - epiphanies in everydayness (ph). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Anna Scott