Let UMD's 2010 Milton marathon begin

By Gram Krause-Lyons The mid-morning light shines muted through the drawn shades in room 355 in the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Kirby Student Center. About 20 students sit gathered around a giant table in the center of the room. Each student has the same book set out in front of them.

“It really changes the way that you understand the poem, it allows you to see things you can’t normally see.”

The book is John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” The people sitting around the table will be reading it from cover-to-cover in one sitting.  The books seem startlingly large sitting in front of them – the page count numbering somewhere over 500 pages.

The students are doing this marathon reading voluntarily, although most are from Paul Cannan’s, a UMD associate professor of English, classes.  He has somehow managed to pull these students back on to campus on a sunny Saturday to invest hours into reading the poem.

Students continue to trickle in. They drop off the food they brought, take their seats, and pull out their copy of the book.  A sense of excitement permeates the room as the students settle in. Once it has been determined that all are accounted for, Cannan decides it is time to start.

“Let Milton Marathon 2010 begin,” Cannan declares.

The first student immediately begins reading. Although the reading is dense and technical, with many incomprehensible words, he moves easily through the lines.

Besides the person who is reading, there is no talking here. The room full of people listens intently, following along in their identical copies of the book.

After a student has read for a while, the next person around the table takes over, in what seems to be a generally seamless transition.

To many, this marathon reading may seem somewhat trivial, but Cannan has his reasons for asking his students to participate, he says.

“When you read it one sitting,” Cannan said. “it really changes the way that you understand the poem, it allows you to see things you can’t normally see.”

Cannan also says that the marathon reading give them a new perspective on the piece.

“When I teach the poem, sometimes we lose sight of the fact that it is poetry,” he said.  “We lose sight of the fact that it was really written to be enjoyed for entertainment, and when you read it aloud you can really appreciate the poetic aspect.”

As the day goes on, the readers become more animated.  A line that in the beginning would have been read in a monotone is now full of emotion and is spoken at much higher volumes.  Cannan’s booming voice echoes across the room, reading the lines of God from the book.  His students begin to pitch in as well, adding sound effects and making any dialogue rich with character.

Cannan has done marathon readings of “Paradise Lost,” before. In fact, this is his third time, and the endeavor usually takes about nine hours, he says.  Today, the reading will take longer.

The group takes much deserved breaks to eat, and the table of food that was once full of unopened packages now lies in disarray.  Empty boxes from the pizzas that were delivered sit at a table in the corner.  By this point, the students have become what Cannon describes as “a little punch drunk,” and their readings somehow become even more animated.

As the sun sets on a Saturday in Duluth - a Saturday most of their peers spent hanging out with friends or enjoying the outdoors.  These students, with their fearless professor at the helm, read on.

By this point, they don’t read because they have to, but because they want to.  The end is in sight and to them the day was far from wasted.

Watch the marathon read-through in action:

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