Book Club Takes 28 Years to Read One Unusual Classic

This book club took 28 years to read Finnegans Wake. Here’s why it took them so long to get through James Joyce’s classic.

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A Californian book club took 28 years to read just one novel. Finnegans Wake, a classic that is notoriously difficult to read, became the club’s chosen read back in 1995. The devoted readers didn’t give up until they finished it 28 years later after meeting to discuss it, one page at a time. This classic is often talked about more than it’s read due to its complexity. Here’s what makes this novel so compelling and why this book club deserves a pat on the back for making their way through it.

What is Finnegans Wake?

Finnegans Wake cover by James Joyce castle

Finnegans Wake by James Joyce was written in 1939 and is considered one of the most difficult novels to read. Not only is the plot and characters confusing, but the language itself is difficult to interpret. Joyce uses his own language, playing on English syntax and pronunciation for the sake of jokes and humor. Which, while it can be amusing, makes it a uniquely difficult book to read. To many, pieces of the novel can be unreadable.

“(Stoop) if you are abcedminded, to this claybook, what curios of sings (please stoop), in this allaphbed! Can you rede (since We and Thou had it out already) its world?”

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

Much of the story is intended to be humorous, yet Joyce’s humor is so unique that it requires interpretation. Considering the book is over 600 pages in most formats, it takes a lot of time and effort to interpret such a long book. It’s certainly not something that can be read in one sitting. Even more, it takes a lot of analysis and discussion just to understand the book in the first place.

Finnegans Wake follows a family who owns a pub in Dublin. Specifically the father, Porter, and his series of dreams and the alternative identities he takes on within them. He, his wife, and his three children take on prominence within the story as their relationships are explored through Porter’s dreams. Joyce was attempting a new writing style to embrace the concept of writing as if it were a stream of consciousness. How seriously the story should be taken and the success of Joyce’s attempts is up to the reader.

How Did the Book Club Read Finnegans Wake?

The book club met consistently over 28 years to read the story. They would spend as long as two hours discussing a single page from the complicated classic. The meetings took place at the Los Angeles Public Library. They never stopped reading Finnegans Wake, even during the pandemic, only changing to meet over Zoom instead.

Filmmaker Gerry Fialka started the group and led it for all 28 years, one page at a time. Now that they’ve finished the novel, people asked what novel Fialka would tackle next. The answer was simple. They would be starting Finnegans Wake over from the beginning again. Finnegans Wake ends midsentence on the last page, and the sentence wraps back around to the beginning of the novel again. The story is cyclical, and Fialka plans to keep the book club going over Zoom with the same story.

Finnegans Wake is complicated enough that reading it more than once is probably a good idea. Plus, with how long it takes the book club to read it, Fialka gets a lot of different readers and different perspectives while interpreting the book. Giving so many people access to reading such a complicated old classic is an impressive feat, and encourages others to tackle classic novels that are intimidating at first. We’ll have to wait and see if it takes another 28 years for Fialka’s club to finish its second read-through.

Looking for more classic reads? Check out some of these books to add to your list.