As It Happens

It took 28 years, but this book club finally finished reading Finnegans Wake

After 28 years, a book club in Venice, Calif., has finally finished reading Finnegans Wake by James Joyce — but the club's founder Gerry Fialka would argue you're never really done reading it.

Gerry Fialka started the book club in 1995, and he says much like the book, it's never really done

A group of people sit together, posing for a picture.
Young and old gathered together for 28 years to read James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, and discuss the twists and turns of the challenging novel. (Submitted by Gerry Fialka)

After 28 years, a book club in Venice, Calif., has finally finished reading Finnegans Wake by James Joyce — but the club's founder Gerry Fialka would argue you're never really done reading it.

"And that's the beauty of it," Fialka told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. "It's rock and roll in print."

Finnegans Wake is no breeze, as it's considered one of the most challenging works of Western fiction. The novel shifts between dream and reality, and explores several storylines that are hard to pin down. There's a constant debate on where the story is set, and who the characters are.

Fialka compares reading the book to doing psychedelics, though he claims his group never partook in such activities as they met at the library to explore the book.

"Some reading clubs drink wine or drink beer … but when we are in a library, no, we didn't encourage people to drink," said Fialka. "It's like a party. You're sitting around singing songs together, like a hootenanny."

People sit around tables reading.
A key part of reading Finnegans Wake is reading it out loud, according to Fialka. (Submitted by Gerry Fialka)

The book took Joyce 17 years to write, and he was eventually able to publish the book in 1939.

For the book, the Irish novelist invented nine 100-letter words and one 101-letter word. The book starts halfway through a sentence, and ends in the middle of the sentence, connecting the beginning and the end.

"It's like the secret language you have with your brother or sister when you're a kid or [with] your friends. So your parents can't understand what you're talking about," said Fialka. 

Benefits of a book club

Many say it's best to read Finnegans Wake out loud, and that's exactly what Fialka set out to do. He started the book club in 1995, when he was in his 40s. He says the group has had a wide range of people, from 12-year-olds to 95-year-olds. About 10 to 30 people would show up, depending on the night.

"When you consciously read a book with a group of people out loud, you're more aware of what the words are doing to you, not so much the content," said Fialka, now 70.

Fialka says his book club operates like any other, despite the challenging text.

"You read a page or two out loud with a group of people. You listen to what everybody's reading and then you discuss it," said Fialka.

"The middle part [is] sort of not so important. You're like trying to figure out what gibberish means, but there's a lot of meaning in that, what people would call gibberish."

A man reading a book.
Gerry Fialka started the Finnegans Wake book club in 1995. (Dave Healey)


Fialka, who could certainly be considered an expert on the book, says you don't have to spend 28 years reading it to understand what it's about. 

He says it can be summed up in one word, coined by James Joyce; laughtears.

"That is a way that Joyce conveyed what the human experience is. The human condition is that you fall and then you get back up. Laugh, and then you cry," said Fialka.

But even though Fialka's group has read through every chapter, he says he isn't done with it. He says it's kind of like comfort food; you always come back to it. And this is true for the book club as well. The reading of Finnegans Wake continues, as the group has moved back to the beginning.

"You don't ever finish it," said Fialka.


Philip Drost is a journalist with the CBC. You can reach him by email at

Interview produced by Sarah Jackson

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now