The DePaul University Student Center on the Lincoln Park Campus was abuzz for 24 hours in early June as the DePaul Humanities Center hosted a marathon reading of best-selling author George Saunders’ work. “We will be reading—nonstop—every book and story he has ever published, and maybe some articles, too,” said Professor H. Peter Steeves, the director of the Humanities Center, in his opening remarks. “We are doing this in service of creating a community of listeners, readers and fans.”
One of Saunders’ biggest fans was first in the line-up. Jeff Tweedy, best known as Wilco’s front-man, announced that “George is one of my favorite artists on the planet” before launching into a spirited reading of “Tenth of December” from Saunders’ short story collection of the same name. Steeves noted that both Tweedy and Saunders are masters at bucking genre conventions and asserted that “like George, Jeff does it all.” The pairing was especially fitting because Saunders listened to Wilco’s song “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” on repeat while writing “Tenth of December.”
Next came Michael Arndt, the editor of Crain’s Chicago Business, followed by “Treasure Island!!!” author Sara Levine and English teacher Joe Gondolfi (EDU ’10). In the wee hours of the morning, a trio of faculty members took their turns at the podium, including Associate Professor Sean Kirkland. “The 2 a.m. slot is sort of a badge of honor,” he said. “Even if there had been no one listening—and there were only about 7 of us there—it would have been gratifying to take part. George Saunders is an extremely important voice in contemporary American literature, and the event itself was a testament to him because it took sacrifice, persistence and the shared commitment of 24 people, plus a little suffering, to make it happen.”
Professor Richard Lee Jr. had never read anything by Saunders before launching into his public reading at 3 a.m. “The event opened my eyes to an author whom I will now read,” he asserted. “I think that was the power of the event: to bring focus and interest to the stories of George Saunders, and to show that it’s possible to bring the humanities to people in new, creative and exciting ways.” As an example, Lee mentioned that two of his current students stopped by to listen to his reading. “Since they wanted to support me, they were exposed to work that otherwise might have passed them by,” he noted.
For hour 18, which arrived at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, June 3, the Academy Award-nominated actor Jesse Eisenberg, who starred as Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network,” participated remotely from New York City. Other readers in the homestretch included Kevin Madden, the defense intelligence agency chair at the U.S. Air Force Air University and a professor at the U.S. Air Force Air War College, and Adam Levin, the author of “Hot Pink” and “Instructions.”
Saunders himself wrapped up the event as a final surprise guest reader. Following his reading, he delivered a lecture titled “Why the Humanities? Why Art?” in which he discussed the value of the humanities from an educational perspective. He concluded on a hopeful note: “What art does, what the humanities do, is take up the question of what it is to be human, but more than that, the question of what a human might be at its best, someday.”