‘The Readers of Homer’ on an international odyssey
Does an all-nighter eating lamb, reading Homer and dancing to Greek music sound like your idea of fun? East Sacramento resident Kathryn Hohlwein thinks it does. That’s why she formed The Readers of Homer in 1998: to stage all-night readings of Homer’s epics "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey."
For someone with such a deep devotion to reading and appreciating Homer, it’s a bit surprising that Hohlwein (pronounced "whole vine") didn’t read the epics growing up. Though she’s a master of Homer now at nearly 80, Hohlwein hadn’t even read much Homer until she was a teacher at California State University, Sacramento, about 40 years ago.
After teaching it for years, she retired, and fans of her class on Homer wondered how they would be able to study the epics elsewhere. Greek American attorney George Spanos pitched her the idea.
"He asked me out for coffee and said, ‘I’ve always had this dream of doing all-night readings of Homer, people there having lamb on a spit,’ " she said. "I’ve always given him credit over the years (because) it was his idea and I ran with it. He opened it in ancient Greek the first couple of readings."
Since Spanos opened the first two dusk-to-dawn readings in 1998 and 1999 at Gibson Ranch, The Readers of Homer have held readings in New York City; Chois, Greece; and Alexandria, Egypt. The city of Chois, Homer’s purported birthplace, enjoyed the readings so much that they began sponsoring the group as part of an annual Festival of Homer since 2007.
But it wasn’t until the 2008 reading in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (the Alexandrian Library) in Egypt that the nonprofit organization got a ton of publicity.
"That was just a great change in our fortunes and recognition," she said. "Not that we’re that famous, but it sort of took off after Alexandria."
It might have been a stretch to compare Hohlwein to Odysseus, the protagonist of the Odyssey, but Hohlwein drew the comparison herself.
"I’ve learned so much about protocol, how to honor mayors and dignitaries, what you do and don’t do and how to deal with all these customs – like Odysseus," she said. "So I’m learning like crazy, and I love that (because) I’ve always been a student."
Hohlwein was born in Salt Lake City, where she appreciated poetry and art. She studied English, philosophy and French at the University of Utah before earning a graduate degree in English from the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College in Vermont.
It was in graduate school that she met poet Robert Frost, who she described as "a complex and irritable human being, but a great conversationalist." She also enjoyed playing baseball with him.
She spent time studying in Europe and teaching in the central United States before marrying German artist Hans-Jurgen Hohlwein and having three children with him. Then she taught at Sac State, where she was first introduced to Homer and taught a seminar called Homeric Imagination for 30 years.
For the 10-to-12-hour readings, there are only two rules: no apologizing for mispronunciations and no interrupting or analyzing the text. Among other languages, readers have sung, chanted and read the works in Arabic, Greek, Mandarin, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Flemish, German and Japanese.
Participants and audience members can be any age, wear whatever they want – one person wore a gladiator outfit once, while another wore cartoonish Homer Simpson footwear – and are encouraged to take naps during the long night of reading. About 350 is an optimal amount of people per reading, Hohlwein said. This allows each person to read for a few minutes and listen the rest of the time.
The next reading, billed as "The Biggest Celebration of Homer in the history of Latin America," will take place in Montevideo, Urugay, May 17-22, and will feature the Mayor of Montevideo and a former president of Uruguay, as well as respected Urugayan author Eduardo Galeano. Another trip to Greece – this time the island of Kos – and New York City are planned for this year.
Though none are scheduled, Hohlwein wants to stage more local readings as well as one strictly for veterans and their families.
"It’s really very universal, not stuffy and old," she said. "It’s about life and death, war and peace, homesickness, veterans and the difficulty of returning to civilian life. I teach it as an anti-war poem."
For more information, visit thereadersofhomer.org.