30 Day Book Challenge: Day One

Favorite Book: Ulysses – James Joyce.

No, seriously.

I won’t bother contributing to the hyperbolic praise already heaped upon this book – if T.S. has already proclaimed it as one of the best things ever written, we can leave it at that – so, instead I’ll try and express why I love it so much.

In 2007, I took a trip to Europe and spent my summer working in Ireland. I was 20 years old at the time and was in the midst of a quarter-life crisis. Should I stick with University? Am I doing the right degree? What is life? What is love? Baby, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more, etc. Now, anyone who knows the slightest thing about Irish culture knows that James Joyce casts a shadow almost as expansive as the Guinness factory, so if you want to immerse yourself in Irish literature you’d better pick up a copy of Ulysses. Hell, if you want to immerse yourself in 20th century art you’d better pick up a copy of Ulysses. So, I brought along my mom’s copy in my backpack and promised myself to finish it at all costs.

Perhaps the most enduring aspect of Ulysses‘s legacy is its reputation as a “difficult” book. Like most Modernist literature, it’s not for everyone and it demands a certain level of attention. Joyce said his ideal reader was an insomniac who obsessively pursued all possible hermeneutic paths his novels could take. Make of that what you will. Whenever encountering something avant garde or experimental, the uninitiated or unprepared reader may dismiss it as pretentious or even go so far as to take offense, as if the author were purposely insulting his/her intelligence. I don’t deny that often happens, but I never got that impression from Ulysses. The best thing I can say about this book is that you get what you put into it, and the smarter you get, the smarter it gets. I’ve only read the thing in its entirety once, but every so often I’ll return to different passages and get something new out of it and be enthralled by it for days.

If you allow it to, it’s the type of book that can take over your life. For the two months I spent reading it, it’s all I ever thought about. Luckily for me not only was I living in Ireland and could appreciate the various cultural references and colloquialisms, but I also had Wikipedia at my disposal to chase down any leads and untangle any knots. Part of the fun of this book, aside from marveling at the rhetorical mastery, is solving the linguistic puzzles. Finally, when I pulled an all-nighter and plowed through the final 50 pages of Molly Bloom’s¬†somnambulistic stream of consciousness, I felt a sadness come over me that I hadn’t felt since I finished Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as a kid. It became such a big part of my life and now it was suddenly over. Like saying goodbye to friend. Cheesy, but isn’t that what makes books so great in the first place? They’re not like movies or music, that can be digested so quickly; they’re slow-burns that take time to grow and cultivate. That’s how I feel anyway.

The great irony of Ulysses and its legacy is how it has been appropriated into academia. The book, and Joyce himself, were, in my mind, anti-academic. Joyce himself laughed at the possibility of trying to interpret the book, and proclaimed in joy that academics would spend generations trying to solve all the puzzles he’d left in the novel. Yet, as we speak, there is an industry for Joyce scholarship. There are walls of books at my University dedicated to “explaining” Ulysses. Now that’s a little harsh, and I’m not trying to belittle or dismiss what they’re doing, but I imagine Joyce having a real laugh at their expense. What’s truly unfortunate, however, is that too many writers after Joyce have taken his erudite style and made it cloistered and obscure. So much avant garde literature now is written for critics and college professors. They don’t have that humor that Joyce had (has). If nothing else, and I’m not be facetious when I say this, Ulysses is a straight-up fun book. It has really inspired me to continue studying literature and philosophy.

An excerpt:

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~ by braddunne on June 13, 2011.

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