Monday, August 31, 2015

James Joyce-less' Ulysses

It took me nearly a decade, but I finally finished James Joyce's Ulysses. I started it back in 2006 because Ulysses has topped numerous lists (e.g.,, NY Times). When I told my dad, an English major, that I was reading it because it was supposedly "the greatest book ever written," he looked at me as if I'd grown a second head and responded, "Greatest book? I wouldn't list the goddamn thing in my top thousand books!" I would agree, and I'm sure I'm not the only person who's relieved that I finally got to the end. I have bitched and moaned to nearly every literary-minded person I know about how much I disliked reading Ulysses. I learned a few things, though.

1. Don't read Ulysses. Some people enjoy Ulysses for the same reason that some people enjoy running marathons: it's hard, and there's something self-flagellatingly appealing about accomplishing the harmful and pointless. I get this rationale, even if I hate it. Others are literary snobs, the kind of people who measure their worth by what other people can't do, like read 650-page monstrosities. My hunch is that these are the people who put Ulysses at the top of the aforementioned lists. Finally, there are the crazies, who tend to love and resonate with stream-of-consciousness writing and creativity, regardless of its accessibility. If that’s you, I’d suggest David Foster Wallace or someone who is less self-indulgent.

What it felt like to read Ulysses

2. If you ignore point 1, read it on a tablet. I started the book in hard copy, and quickly had a pile on my bed stand that included a dictionary and Cliff’s Notes. Ulysses is impressive in its profligate use of sophisticated and inaccessible language. At some point, I just got tired of looking up the words I didn't know. With a tablet, you can just highlight the word and have it spit out a convenient definition. Not only that, but you can quickly look up all the esoteric references that are essential for understanding the book (e.g., who was Parnell? What happened in the Odyssey again?). I was able to vastly improve my pace in the book once I went digital.


After nearly a decade reading the "greatest book ever written," shouldn't I be able to list more than two things I learned about myself or the world? There was exactly one line that I highlighted as an elegant statement (i.e., Leopold Bloom attributes his equanimity toward his wife's philandering partly to the "apathy of the stars"). I also resonated with the way Bloom mentally made puns and freewheeling associations after hearing certain words, regardless of how somber the situation was. That’s it, though. And yes, you scolds, I did suffer my way through Joyce’s other tedious books.

Anyway, I feel liberated. I celebrated by watching a couple episodes of Robotech with my son and writing this blog entry, and I’ll probably read Prodigal Summer next. It can only get better from here.

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