Why You Should Read Ulysses

Here is my Bloomsday “unsolicited advice” entry.

You know that you really ought to read Ulysses but you just cannot make yourself do it. You tried several times, most of the tries took place when you were younger. You opened the book, you read some here and there. You probably know the plot, if you don’t, you really ought to look it up, it’s fairly simple. You did it because you thought you had to, because others told you that you really ought to read it, but you never really felt that the effort was worth the candle. What is the ultimate purpose of reading Ulysses when you are young? Obviously, to show off. There is no shame in admitting it, at least to yourself. We do a lot of things for the sole reason of checking off the appropriate box. Reading Ulysses, unfortunately (or fortunately), is one of the boxes. Well, it is one of the boxes on the lists for people who would like to have the reputation of being smart.

Perhaps later in life you picked up the thick volume again, now to follow up some citation from another book. You read about the titles of various episodes and, having failed to discover them in your edition of the book, googled it and read up about them in Wikipedia. You probably came across a mention of a longer passage and you read a good bit from the middle of the book. You were moved (or you thought you were moved) by a passage. Let’s face it, even the most pretentious among us cannot resist a passage such as this:

Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it, it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see.

And yet you did not read the book because you did not have time. The effort again did not seem like something you could afford; you could not spare time for such an undertaking. Plus, you have already read enough about the book that the ritual of actually reading it seemed superfluous. You decided that you will most certainly read it in its entirety “one day” – when you are on vacation, or during the summer, or when you retire from whatever it is that miserable thing you do every goddamn day of the week.

Here is why you should read it though, I think.

1) It is not as difficult as you think and the pay-off is much larger than you think it would be. Of course the difficulty of the book is in the eye of the beholder. If your usual reading is some godawful postmodernist lost-in-translation quasi-philosophical nonsense, you will probably not do very well here. Your search for meaning and depth will be continuously disappointed by dirty jokes, semi-sensical thoughts, inconsequential encounters, and references to masturbation. But if you have a good sense of the language and enjoy occasional twist of it in unexpected directions, if you have a sense of humor, you will find yourself enjoying the material quite unexpectedly.

2) If English is your first language, you owe it to yourself, pure and simple. If it is not, you owe it to the English language. This is the best specimen of the language since Shakespeare. If you do not understand and enjoy this book, you have a long way ahead of you before you can confidently write “fluent” in the respective column on your application for some mind-numbingly dull but well-paid corporate position.

3) It disciplines you and your reading skills better than any other book. It forces you to read attentively and imaginatively. It bores you in some places; it elevates your spirit in others. Both experiences are essential for any human being (I cannot speak for objects here, but I’m sure if they were able to read, they would benefit from it as well as subjects). Not all of the book’s tricks will work on you. You will inevitably struggle through some sections, while rushing through others. But in the end, it’s all good…

Some pride themselves on writing a book a year. Some even count how many hours it takes them to write a book. They compile long lists of their publications. It took Joyce seven years to write it. (It took another seventeen years to write Finnegans Wake.) Every word, every turn of phrase and every sentence in this book was carefully selected. It’s all there for one reason or another.

So put away your Žižek and pick up your Joyce.

2 thoughts on “Why You Should Read Ulysses

  1. I’m working my way up to it, I’ve got Portrait of a Young Artist under my belt – which I enjoyed very much in parts. Being a young chap the bragging rights certainly appeal…

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