I was telling someone recently as I’ve been doing for a long time now that I’m reading Ulysses. And they were kind of shocked. Why? Sure, everyone respects the man and the book––but actually read it?!
Explaining myself to myself later I thought, well, athletes do all manner of grueling competitions, foodies try to concoct elaborate gastro essences, gardeners create new fields of wonder and serious book readers take on the big books, the ones that got away, this is how we roll…
I am currently in year two of my version of a triathlon: I’m reading Ulysses and then Moby Dick. Last year I read Middlemarch. Talking to English professors recently they were bemoaning the fact that students don’t want to read the big books anymore (the ones that go over 500 pages) and these books are disappearing off syllabi like a species becoming extinct. I think we need to keep reading these classics. I felt so enriched by reading Middlemarch last year. It was such a cozy winter immersing myself into the intricate universe of middle England in the 1830s. It was a cracking love story and it genuinely made me rethink my whole relationship to money. I was chastened by the ditzy doctor’s wife and her spendy-pants ways. Hands down, George Eliot kicks Eddie Hobb’s butt on teaching fiscal rectitude. So many of Eliot’s witty and insightful phrases and pages have blown off the top of my head—Emily Dickinson’s vetting test for great art.
Normally I read contemporary fiction. It’s mostly easy to read. I understand the words, the references, the turns of phrase without the need for footnotes, which I’m generally far too lazy to pursue. In my university studies I tackled and noodled my way through lots of the difficult stuff: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton. Sir Edmund Spencer and his Faerie Queen stands out as particularly painful to read but maybe I was too young…
Reading Ulysses so far is the opposite of easy to read.* I’ve had lots of advice on how to approach it. Sure you can just dive right in and go for it. I tried that already and I found myself repeatedly starting at the first page. Other advice so far: Have your boyfriend read it to you, listen to the audio tapes, give yourself permission to skim, definitely skim, watch the movie, and read a study guide before. I’m going the study guide route. If that fails, I might investigate the audio path.
I’m now on my second study guide. *According to my reader’s guide one way Joyce had of rebelling against the oppressive English was to go nutso on the English language itself! Big revelation. Hence the difficulty… It’s not all hard going though. I can appreciate his scrotum-tightening ocean descriptions. And the guide is teaching me what a cool radical Joyce was, so outward thinking and always kicking against the pricks of the day of anti-Semitism, misogyny and stifling conservative Catholicism which definitely makes me want to plow on through.
My whole mission is helped by the fact that I swim regularly at the very same swimming hole where Joyce opens Ulysses. The Martello tower where Stephen, Buck and Haines live is my regular outing. As followers of prairiedolphin.com know I pelt myself into that ‘scrotum-tightening grey mother’ of a sea most Sunday mornings. Living in the setting of this revered novel is a big motivator for me.
I love real paper books but I also enjoy my Kindle. Reading the Classics on the Kindle can be so much better than the paper version. These huge books sometimes have miniscule fonts which makes the whole thing even more difficult. The versions I have of Middlemarch and Ulysses on my Kindle have wonderfully sized letters and spaces between the lines and shorter pages. If it’s going to be cryptic and opaque, it’s best for it not be too dense.
I’ve been on Chapter 1 for a long time now, since last winter. I keep getting distracted by new modern novels, easy to binge on. But now at last I’m confident I’m going to make progress. I have a new rule I am instituting as of today: don’t try to read Ulysses in bed. Difficult books can be too sleepy-making. I need to be fully alert and vertical for this bad boy.
I think something else might help my cause: a pub crawl. One of these evenings I’m going to grab my husband, hop on the number 4 bus and make it a date night to go see and drink where Stephen and Leopold hung out in downtown Dublin town.
To be continued
PS Please tell me what your difficult-but-worth-it books are.