[Source: “Volunteers needed: Iowa City Book Festival begins with classic reading,” Press Citizen, Zach Berg, 2 October 2016]
Dozens of authors will be in Iowa City this week to read and share their modern works, but the first words to be read aloud at this year’s Iowa City Book Festival come from a classic.
In what has become a tradition for the festival, Anna Barker, an adjunct assistant professor of Russian literature at the University of Iowa, is hosting a three-day, volunteer-run public reading of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 150-year-old novel “Crime and Punishment” starting Tuesday morning on the steps of Iowa City’s Old Capitol Museum.
Reading the entirety of the more than 500-page novel out loud will take a little more than 24 hours, with daily readings from 9 a.m.-9 p.m. and ending around noon on Thursday.
Barker is still searching for more readers to donate their time and reading skills to help them plow through the literary classic. Volunteers can choose a time on a sign-up sheet at the main entrance of Phillips Hall or email Barker at email@example.com.
Getting volunteers to read aloud classics is nothing new for Barker. In 2011, Barker and volunteers read J.M. Barrie’s 1911 novel “Peter Pan,” which Barker said only took about four hours. In 2012, “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy was read aloud, taking 54 hours. “Crime and Punishment” is slated to take about 24 hours when broken into two 12-hour shifts on Tuesday and Wednesday, and however much time is needed on Thursday to finish it.
Barker said the whole idea to read aloud pieces of literature sprung from a joke in 2010, when she was trying to formulate an idea on how to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Tolstoy’s death.
“I was trying to get some ideas from [former UI professor] Russell Valentino and he jokingly suggested ‘Why don’t you read all of “Anna Karenina” out loud,’ ” she said. “That actually sounded fun to me.”
“Anna Karenina” took 34 hours and dozens of volunteers to read in front of the UI Main Library in 2010. That’s when John Kenyon, executive director of Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature and the Iowa City Book Festival, noticed what Barker was doing.
“The book festival found out about the reading and was very supportive of it from the beginning. Then they invited me to be a regular part of the event, which made me ecstatically happy,” Barker said.
This year’s book festival, which marks the sixth time Barker has held a reading in conjunction with the event, runs from Tuesday to Sunday throughout Iowa City and Coralville.
Iowa City isn’t the only place where readings like this happen. “There’s precedence for this kind of madness around the world,” Barker said.
Each year in January, the town of New Bedford, Mass., gathers at the Whaling Museum for a 25-hour nonstop reading of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” On June 16 each year, Dublin, Ireland, is overtaken with readings and celebrations of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” a novel that is set on June 16.
For Andrea Wilson, president of the Iowa Writers’ House and a friend of Barker’s, it’s not madness that drives her friend to organize such a literary feat but passion for the art.
“She doesn’t want you to just accept literature, or have the general Cliff’s Notes of it, she wants you to live it and breathe it,” Wilson said.
Barker’s love of everything related to Russian literature is so strong, Wilson said, that Barker even taught a class at the Iowa Writers’ House on Valentine’s Day this year called “Sex, Love and Tolstoy.” On Nov. 5 inside the Old Capitol, Barker will be teaching another course with the Writers’ House based on Dostoevsky’s “Notes from the Underground,” and Russian teacakes, gingerbread and Russian tea will be served.
“Iowa City is a reading community, and it’s absolutely delightful to be a part of a city that is hungry and constantly seeking new ideas when it comes to celebrating literature,” Barker said.
Reach Zach Berg at 319-887-5412, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @ZacharyBerg.