A couple years ago I finally read Ulysses, and posted this review on a blog I had started and would soon abandon.

Took advantage of several long flights over the past few months and accomplished an unfinished task from graduate school — I read all 642 unabridged pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses. 

A customary thought upon completing any book is whether or not you’d recommend it to a friend. After finishing Ulysses, I’m left thinking that I’d only recommend it to someone who really wanted to read Ulysses. It’s not a “just give it a try” kind of book, or one you can put down in mid-chapter and easily pick up where you left off. Although it has an easily identifiable day-in-the-life plot, the author’s unconventional punctuation (quotation marks are rarely used, making it hard at times to see the line between character statements and narration) and imagistic use of language — Joyce tries not so much to describe a setting through his characters but to convey that character’s impression of that setting — make Ulysses a far different read than most of us are accustomed. It is a book that you don’t so much read but rather experience, and that experience is best captured by reading each of its eighteen chapters (or episodes, as they are often called) during one setting. The first several episodes can be completed in about an hour each, but latter episodes can take several hours — and, it bears repetition, each episode is best experienced in its entirety, without interruption, at one setting. It is a novel that you have to want to read, and while I couldn’t recommend it to anyone just looking for a good read, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed a literary challenge.

An aid I employed in reading Ulysses, one which I would highly recommend to anyone considering reading (or re-reading) the novel, is the Naxos Audiobooks recording of the novel. Combining some frequent buyer credits and a sale from Audible.com, I was able to download the complete unabridged recording (over 27 hours! As I said, this is a novel that takes a commitment) last year at a reasonable price. The purchase was inspired by a Shakespearean professor from college, who recommended listening to performances of the plays while reading. Our university had a very good listening library that contained each of Shakespeare’s plays, and I found that listening to professional actors brought nuances of meaning to the text that I had no hope of capturing on my own. Knowing that Joyce would present an even greater linguistic challenge, I decided that an audible aid was again appropriate. And I am happy for my decision, as the reading by Jim Norton (who provides a specially good performance at the end of episode 17) and Marcella Riordan (whose major task is reading the final episode, Molly Bloom’s eight-sentence, two-hour plus soliloquy) made the experience of this fantastic and overwhelming novel far more enjoyable and accessible.

One final observation, of which I am not entirely proud — my curiosity regarding the novel actually began in my childhood while listening to the gleefully drivelistic song “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh”. In his sorrowful letter to his parents, Alan Sherman’s unhappy summer camper lists among his many misfortunes that “the head coach wants no sissies, so he reads to us from something called Ulysses.” As children should, I asked my parents what was meant by this line, and while they did explain the novel had a reputation for being difficult and obscene (it was banned in the US between 1921 and 1933, though it is, not surprisingly, tame by today’s standards), the hesistance I heard in their answer made clear that they had said all they wanted to say on the subject and that now was a really good time for me to go watch “Batman.” Their explanation left me only slight less confused, and while I now imagine the reference was Sherman’s attempt to tweak the Puritanical literary attitudes of his audience in 1963, after finally having read Ulysses, the line seems even more out of place to me now than it did back then. 

(originally posted 2-15-2009)

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