Summer Reading Project: Ulysses

dublin 1904So, we’re back!  It’s time for the annual reading project…where Barb and I read a very long book that is considered to be unreadable.

The first was War and Peace.  Next, Infinite Jest, followed by The Brothers Karamazov.  This year it’s Ulysses.

I’m not going to lie.  This is the one I am most nervous about.  Ulysses is famously unreadable.  Major authors and literary figures–from Philip Roth to Virginia Woolf–have found it impossible to finish.  JOSE LUIS BORGES couldn’t finish it.  Have you ever read one of HIS books?  When I see it compared to The Waste Land, which I found impenetrable in college, I begin to shudder.

In fact, I re-read the Waste Land as a warm-up last week and it didn’t fill me with confidence.

A moment ago I told Barb that Ulysses is just words on a page…but who’s kidding who?

Of course, it’s no coincidence that we are starting today since it is Bloomsday.  June 16th is literally the day that is captured in the book.

I was reading around trying to find advice on how to read the book. First, as a digression, I found that Joe Biden, Pete Buttererergieg, and Beto O’Rourke (listed here in reverse order of insufferability) have been praising Ulysses.  Which we are not in favor of.  We don’t want to be trendy.

Anyway, my reading found two types of advice on how to read the book.  The first is to have the book open, with a Ulysses-companion on one side and a reader’s companion of literature on the other.

The other is recommended here by British Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, who shows a touch for nuanced thought not seen during Question Time.  His advice:

But then “you stop trying to focus on the narrative and start just enjoying the vignettes”.

Or, just let the work wash over you, like a symphony or, more importantly, abstract art.  When you see this….


you feel what it makes you feel.  You don’t have to understand it.  And putting a bunch of academics between you and the work isn’t respectful of you, as a reader.

As delivered by Robert DeNiro in Analyze This, “a hard-on should be gotten honestly or it shouldn’t be gotten at all.”

Yes, I understand that Joyce has layered the work with a rich set of allusions that I’m likely not to catch.  That’s no crime…the only person to catch them all would have lived in Dublin in 1904.

So, my general practice is to read a section straight through, experientially.  Then, if you like, you can look back and see what was layered inside the section.  You just can’t read four words, look up the meaning and then pick it up again for another four words.  You won’t capture any of the famous rhythm of the book.

gablerWe picked the “Gabler Edition.”  This is a story in and of itself.  Apparently, previous editions of Ulysses contained a lot of mistakes, both from difficulty transcribing the original manuscripts and from Joyce’s lack of proofreading.  So Gabler decided to get a committee together and go through the whole thing line by line and fix what ended up being hundreds of mistakes.

At first, this was well received, but then there seems to have been a backlash about new mistakes being introduced, etc.  So far as I can see, knowledgable (let’s not say reasonable) people disagree, so we’re going to let it ride with Dr. Gabler.

One last thing.  The book is notable for being dirty and censored.  I hope I’m not too dense to find the dirty parts.  As Corbyn said:

You almost feel sorry for the censors who had to read and try and understand it, until they found something they deemed offensive.

No one said it would be easy.

So off we go.

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