[Editorial note: What follows is an edit of a piece I first posted on June 16, 2010–Bloomsday. Today marks the 100th anniversary of the first publication of James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses. I tried to come up with something original, but I found I had nothing to say that I hadn’t already said here, which essentially amounts to, Read Ulysses. It’s not nearly as difficult as its reputation might suggest. And it’s really funny.]
James Joyce’s Ulysses is a celebrated and praised novel. However, the book’s reputation for density, erudition, and inscrutability still daunts many readers–leading to a glut of guidebooks, summaries, and annotations. Ironically, rather than inviting first-time readers to the text, the sheer volume of these guides to Ulysses can paradoxically repel. Their very existence seems predicated on an intense need, and although some of the guides out there can be helpful, others can get in the way. This need not be. Ulysses deserves its reputation as one the best books in the English language. It generously overflows with insight into the human experience, and it’s very, very funny. And, most importantly, anyone can read it.
Here are a few thoughts on how to read Ulysses, enumerated–because people like lists:
1. Ignore all guides, lists, maps, annotations, summaries, and lectures. You don’t need them; in fact, they could easily weigh down what should be a fun reading experience. Jump right into the text. Don’t worry about getting all the allusions or unpacking all the motifs.
Pretty soon though, you’ll get to the third chapter, known as “Proteus.” It’s admittedly hard to follow. You might want a guide at this point. Or you might just want to give up. (Of course, you might be a genius and totally get what Stephen is thinking about as he wanders the beach. Good for you). If frustration sets in, I suggest skipping the chapter and getting into the rich, earthy consciousness of the book’s hero, Leopold Bloom in chapter four, “Calypso.” It’s great stuff. You can always go back to chapter three later, of course. The real key, at least in my opinion, to reading (and enjoying) Ulysses is getting into Bloom’s head, matching his rhythm and pacing. Do that and you’re golden.
I’ve already advised you, gentle reader, not to follow any guides, so please, ignore the rest of my advice. Quit reading this post and start reading Ulysses.
For those who wish to continue–
2. Choose a suitable copy of the book. The Gabler edition will keep things neat and tidy and it features wide margins for all those clever game-changing annotations you’ll be taking. Several guides, including Harry Blamire’s The New Bloomsday Book align their annotation to the Gabler edition’s pagination.
3. Make a reading schedule and stick to it. The Gabler edition of Ulysses is nearly 700 pages long. That’s a long, long book–but you can read it in just a few weeks. There are eighteen episodes in Ulysses, some longer and more challenging than others, but reading one episode every two days should be no problem. If you can, try to read one episode in one sitting each day. As the book progresses, you’ll find yourself going back to previous chapters to find the figures, motifs, and traces that dance through the book.
4. So you’ve decided you need a guide. First, try to figure out what you want from the guide. Basic plot summary? Analysis? Explication? There’s plenty out there–too much really–so take the time to try to figure out what you want from a guide and then do some browsing and skimming before committing.
The most famous might be Stuart Gilbert’s James Joyce’s Ulysses, a dour book that manages to suck all the fun out of Joyce’s work. In a lecture on Ulysses, Vladimir Nabokov warned “against seeing in Leopold Bloom’s humdrum wanderings and minor adventures on a summer day in Dublin a close parody of the Odyssey,” noting that “it would be a complete waste of time to look for close parallels in every character and every scene in the book.” Nabokov scathingly continued: “One bore, a man called Stuart Gilbert, misled by a tongue-in-cheek list compiled by Joyce himself, found in every chapter the domination of one particular organ . . . but we shall ignore that dull nonsense too.” It’s perhaps too mean to call Gilbert’s guide “nonsense,” but it’s certainly dull. Harry Blamire’s The New Bloomsday Book is a line-by-line annotation that can be quite helpful when Joyce’s stream of consciousness gets a bit muddy; Blamire’s explications maintain a certain analytical neutrality, working mostly to connect the motifs of the book but letting the reader manage meaning. Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated is an encyclopedia of minutiae that will get in the way of any first time reader’s enjoyment of the book. Gifford’s notes are interesting but they can distract the reader from the text, and ultimately seem aimed at scholars and fanatics.
Most of the guidebooks I’ve seen for Ulysses share a common problem: they are obtrusive. I think that many readers who want some guidance or insight to aid their reading of Ulysses, rather than moving between books (what a chore!), should listen to some of the fantastic lectures on Joyce that are available. James Heffernan’s lectures for The Teaching Company provide a great overview of the book with some analysis; they are designed to be listened to in tandem with a reading of the book. The best explication I’ve heard though is a series of lectures by Joseph Campbell called Wings of Art. Fantastic stuff, and probably the only guide you really need. It’s unfortunately out of print, but you can find it easily via extralegal means on the internet. Speaking of the internet–there’s obviously a ton of stuff out there. I’ll withhold comment–if you found this post, you can find others, and have undoubtedly already seen many of the maps, schematics, and charts out there.
5. Another strategy: read, but listen to an audiobook as well. This will give you a chance to “reread” the novel. I highly, highly, highly recommend RTÉ’s 1982 full cast production. I reviewed it here some years back.
6. Keep reading. Reread. Add time to that reading schedule you made if you need to. But most of all, have fun. Skip around. If you’re excited about Molly’s famous monologue at the end of the book, go ahead and read it. Again, the point is to enjoy the experience. If you can trick a friend into reading it with you, so much the better. Have at it.