A Conversation With Kathryn Szoka

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Canios Books Co-Owner Kathryn Szoka, photographed in her store. Michael Heller photography.

The nonprofit organization Canio’s Cultural Café, which is run by Canio’s Books, is planning a marathon reading of the John Steinbeck novel “The Winter of Our Discontent” this weekend. Why such a reading, why John Steinbeck and why this novel? Canio’s co-owner Kathryn Szoka explains.

Last year I myself took part in the “Moby Dick” marathon, which was great fun and a learning experience. Do you do plan a marathon every year?

We do a similar event every year. We do a “Moby Dick” event every other year because it’s a large investment in terms of time and resources. In the off years we select another writer that has some relevance to the area.

Why choose John Steinbeck?

We want to draw attention to John Steinbeck and the fact that we had a Nobel Prize winner living in our village in recent history. All of Sag Harbor should be very proud of that. Steinbeck’s last novel was “The Winter of Our Discontent” and he wrote it while living in Sag Harbor. It is about a village not unlike Sag Harbor. A number of characters are shaped by those he knew and loved in Sag Harbor. When you read the description of the natural environment in the winter, you will know the locations he’s talking about. It’s so Sag Harbor it’s wonderful.

“The Winter of Our Discontent” is known for its exploration of moral degeneration of culture in mid-20th century America. Is there any particular reason you’ve selected this one for this year’s marathon?

The novel tackles themes of moral relativity, economic displacement, immigration — those are all themes that are very relevant in our world and village today. We would like to draw attention to the fact that John Steinbeck in the early 1960s was writing about these eternal human condition themes that really resonated then, and still do today. We also feel that as Sag Harbor continues to change and new people continue to come here, we feel that it’s part of our mission to let people be aware of his presence here and what he wrote when he was here.

What does a marathon entail and how can people get involved?

We welcome all people. They can come and listen, drop in for ten minutes or stay for the whole day or the whole marathon. If they would like to read, the way to sign up is by email. They read for 10 minutes. It does go pretty quickly. We’re going to start out the marathon with the director of the National Steinbeck Center, Susan Shillinglaw — she’s the pretty much worldwide Steinbeck scholar. From noon to 1 p.m., the Wharf Shop is sponsoring that hour, at 1 p.m. the novelist Alan Furst will read. April Gornik will read at 2 p.m. and rounding out the day, Bonnie Grice and her theater group Boots on the Ground have the 6-to-7 hour. On Sunday between 2 and 3 p.m., Carl Safina, the world-renowned biologist, and Mary Norris, the former New Yorker writer — “The Comma Queen” — will read, and then we’ll have the party.

What is rewarding about the experience of taking part in a reading marathon?

There’s a certain alchemy that happens when you hear the written word read out loud, when you hear many people read the work of a great writer. In the room itself, whether you’re listening or whether you’re reading, the spirit of great fiction is moving. As a participant in the marathon in addition to getting a John Steinbeck button, which is a very modest reward, the reward is really being in community with your friends and neighbors enjoying great literature. We believe a good book is the best vacation anybody can take and it is absolutely essential to improving our imagination and putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. I think it does a great service to bringing the world closer together.

Canio’s marathon reading of John Steinbeck’s “The Winter of Our Discontent” is Saturday, May 19, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sunday, May 20, from noon to 3 p.m., followed by a party. There will be a silent auction featuring a signed, special edition of “The Red Pony”; a Steinbeck painting by David Slater; Arthur Leipzig’s photograph of a Sag Harbor worker from the 1960s, and more. For more information, send an email to caniosculturalcafe@gmail.com or call (631) 725-4926.

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