One by one, the members of the Joycean fraternity sat down on the day of the artist's 100th birthday at a long table in the close confines of American University's Bentley Lounge. Picking up their much-battered copies, they read aloud half-hour sections of "Ulysses," a work that for many of them is both an obsession and something of an addiction. "All of us," said Theodor Schuchat, "are drunk on words."

". . . O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geranium and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."

"I'm a Joycean, I've been reading the book all my life," said Schuchat after taking part in the marathon reading of "Ulysses" that will conclude tonight at American University. Schuchat, 58, read the book first when he was 18. He has read it again every year since, "except during the war. I wasn't able to read much then." It is, he said, "a book one studies, not a book one reads. 'Ulysses' is like the Bible, or Shakespeare. All of life is in it."

And all of them belong to a kind of mystic order, these serious, tweedy, earnest types who have come together in their passion for a author who believed, as Anthony Burgess has written, in "the power of ordinary life to burst forth -- suddenly and miraculously -- with a revelation of truth." A difficult author who turns understanding into a rite of initiation.

"Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed," is how the torrent began yesterday morning when the marathon's organizer, Prof. Rudolph Von Abele of American University, read the first section of Joyce's epic of one June day in the life of Leopold Bloom, in a Dublin so perfectly described that Joyce once boasted that if the city were razed it could be reconstructed from the details in his novel.

Auditions for the reading had been held in December and about 40 readers were chosen, assigned sections of the book and given an approximate time when they should put in an appearance. The reading was scheduled to go until midnight last night, resume this morning and conclude tonight around at 8 or 9 when Irish actress Siobha'n McKenna reads the book's final section, Molly's soliloquy.

Matt Clemens, 25 and pale behind his horn-rimmed glasses, read the first part of the Lestrygonians with special passion. He had read and reread his section at home; he had called the Irish Embassy to make sure of the pronunciation of certain words. "I tried to stress the anapests and dactyls," he says. "It is a pivotal episode," the only way to understand the way the thing works. "I could talk in terms of ideation," he says helpfully, "but I wanted to stress the language, the mellifluousness of the vowels and the consonants." Clemens, a writer and unemployed waiter, has also read "The Wake," as he calls "Finnegans Wake" -- or, as he says, "I've been through it, I've read the words, but I've only studied a small section of Book I and some of Book III." He can tell you where in the Library of Congress to find the words to the song Blazes Boylan sings about the seaside girls and what song the words "winds that blow from the south" come from (an 1845 opera by William Vincent Wallace). "I do this all the time," he says. "I'm obsessed by it. People all have their own outlets. Some people look at a van Gogh over and over, from 60 feet away and then under a microscope, some people like to take an engine apart and see how it works. I study 'Ulysses.' " He pauses, a nervous young man who prefers to talk in profile rather than make eye contact, and apologizes, saying, "I'm not really used to talking to people."

The Irish ambassador and six of his aides all read. "We're all pitching in for this," said embassy first secretary James Carroll, although he didn't have much time to prepare. "I just took a quick flick at it last night," he said, "but we Dubliners ought to have an easier time of it."

". . . I throw this ended shadow from me, manshape ineluctable, call it back. Endless, would it be mine, form of my form? Who watches me here? Who ever anywhere will read these written words? Signs on a white field. Somewhere to someone in your flutiest voice. The good bishop of Cloyne took the veil of the temple out of his shovel hat: veil of space with coloured emblems hatched on its field. Hold hard. Coloured on a flat: yes, that right. Flat I see, then think distance, near, far, flat I see, east, back. Ah, I see now. Falls back suddenly, frozen in stereoscope. Click does the trick. You find my words dark. Darkness in our souls, do you not think? Flutier. Our souls, shame wounded by our sins, cling to us yet more, a woman to her lover clinging, the more the more."

One by one, they followed Leopold Bloom through his day in Dublin, from the house on Eccles Street to Paddy Dignam's funeral and the newspaper office, reading the words with a savory pleasure, working their way confidently around the strange rich language. "Besides, how could you remember everybody? Eyes, walk, voice," read Jo Radner. "Well. the voice, yes: gramophone. Have a gramophone in every grave or keep it in the house. After dinner on a Sunday. Put on poor old greatgrandfather Kraahraark! Hellohellohello amawfullyglad kraark, awfullygladaseeragain hellohello amarawf kopthsth." Radner tossed this passage off with aplomb before retreating back to the world of Celtic studies, her own particular area of expertise. All in all she was quite pleased. "I didn't stammer once on a rotting corpse," she told Von Abele. "Heroic," Von Abele said.

"It's kind of an athletic exercise, making your imagination work with someone else's art," Radner said. "I think it's a monumental occasion and just a little bit mad," she said.

Clemens admits to being obsessed by Joyce, but says that he is something of an acolyte in the realm of Joyce worship. "Samuel Beckett would dress in the same clothes as Joyce," he said. "He even wore the same shoes in the same size Joyce did. Except that Beckett's feet were 2 1/2 sizes larger than Joyce's. Now that," said Clemens, "is adulation."