Marathon reading in an Irish saloon, now that's culture

June 13, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

The problem with culture is that it's often perceived as, well, boring. It's something that's good for you, like brussels sprouts or flossing. And, of course, by definition, any cultural event is one at which you are expected not to wear a Metallica T-shirt.

Take ballet, for example.

Some call it culture. I call it torture. I'd even rather watch professional bowling.

I've been to ballet. Clearly, what you need here is a 24-second clock. And if you're going to do all that jumping, there should be some slam dunking. Otherwise, what's the point?

Introduce dunking to ballet, and you'll get lines around the block, particularly if you change the music from Tchaikovsky to, say, Queen.

You watch. Nike will put out a Michael Jordan leotard. The ballet playoffs will last to late June and suddenly Marv Albert is doing the play-by-play on "Swan Lake."

OK, this sounds a lot like that stupid beer commercial where some of the dumb and restless are watching TV at a bar. "You wanna watch mud wrestling or 'The McLaughlin Group.'? Hey, I know, let's combine 'em."

Some of the opera folks understand what I'm talking about, though. There's this great ad on the radio about how operas now have subtitles, which makes sense. My Italian, for example, is just barely good enough for the menu at Sabatino's.

Anyway, the ad ends with a message something like this: "Opera. It's better than you think. (Pause). It has to be."

They're right, of course.

Now, I don't want you to get the idea that I am some yahoo, though. I can do culture. In fact, I did some serious culture over the weekend.

I received this fax (it's the '90s: nobody calls and nobody writes; everybody faxes) about a Bloomsday marathon reading down in Washington.

There are at least two things about this reading that sounded particularly appealing.

One: "Ulysses" is an extremely, well, sexy book (I've underlined the dirty parts, if you want to borrow my copy) and was, in fact, banned in this country for years.

Two: The reading takes 32 hours, and they spend the entire 32 hours in a bar. It was the 10th annual Bloomsday event in D.C., and they do it on a weekend (Bloomsday is actually June 16) because you can drink and not have to go to work the next day.

I decided to spend an afternoon.

"It's like a rock concert late at night in here," said a Bloomsday regular who insisted his name was Bill Hill. "Beer's all over the floor, and so are the people. By Sunday morning, it gets really weird."

Bloomsday is the day in which Leopold Bloom walks all around Dublin. That's the basic plot of "Ulysses," a novel by James Joyce. Bloom walks around town, accompanies a friend to a brothel while, back at the house, his wife, the incomparable Molly, is having an affair. Meanwhile, all Bloom wants from life is for Molly to give him breakfast in bed.

It's the longest and grandest day in literature. Think of it as "American Graffiti" with less rock 'n' roll but much more sex.

You know the book is culture because it's nearly 800 pages long, and you can't understand any of it without the Cliffs Notes, which are 125 pages long. It's the only book where you need Cliffs Notes for the Cliffs Notes.

In a famous quote, Joyce once said it took him seven years to write the book -- the last 50 pages of which have no punctuation whatsoever -- and that it should take seven years for somebody to read it.

They do it every year in 32 hours at Kelly's Irish Times, with the customers drinking lots of Guinness and Irish whiskey -- a whiskey company sponsors the event -- and following along in their personal copies of "Ulysses" while readers present their chapters in their best Irish accents.

This is culture: Somebody reads to you great literature, and you get to drink to the reader. You should have been there. It's enough to get people back to reading.

It's part of a trend that I, as a writer, find heartening. Like the poetry slams you may have heard about. Poet vs. poet, until the last muse is left standing.

You expect a fight to break out. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, punk.

Culture, at its best, should be down and dirty. Of course, some would make the same argument for a really good tractor pull.

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