By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 28, 2015
My friend Mike and I decided to read and discuss Ulysses by James Joyce. We’ve been reading about the book’s various editions, and whether or not new readers should use study guides. Since all of this was getting so interesting, I suggested we create a public group at Yahoogroups, and Mike agreed. Because we want to finish up some other books, and because I thought it would be cool to finish our discussion of Ulysses on Bloomsday (Ulysses takes place June 16, 1904), we decided to start February 17th. The book has eighteen chapters, and we’ll discuss one a week, finishing the last, “Penelope,” the week of 6/16/15. This gives people three weeks to finish up their books, find a copy of Ulysses, and maybe study up on it some.
If you’re interested, you can join here if you have a Yahoo account: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/ulysses-2015/info . Otherwise, shoot an email to email@example.com and I’ll add you manually to the mailing list. Ulysses is one of those books that many people intend to read, but never do. It’s been on my To-Be-Read pile for over forty years. I’ve read Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man three times to get ready, but have never followed through. Recently I read The Most Dangerous Book by Kevin Birmingham, a 2014 book about the history of writing, publishing and legal battles over Ulysses. I figure if Joyce went through that much suffering to write his novel, and so many people were willing to risk jail to publish it in America and England, then maybe I need to make more of an effort.
Ulysses was an incredibly notorious book in the early part of the 20th century. It was banned in America and Great Britain, and Americans would smuggle copies from Paris. Because it was frequently pirated, and because Joyce constantly changed it, even adding large amounts of new material to the printers’ page proofs, Ulysses has had many editions and corrected editions. Because it was originally set in type by French printers that often did not know English, there were lots of typographical errors. The public domain editions that are now available as free ebooks use those older editions. Mike and I are going to use the Gabler edition, but that’s controversial too. Many are happy with the 1960/61 editions. There is much argument over which edition to read and how to read Ulysses – with or without supplemental guides.
I plan to listen to Ulysses. I have two audio editions, know of a third commercial one, and a fourth free audio edition. I’m going to buy the Gabler print edition because it has line numbers, making referencing easier. I’m also going to get Joyce’s Ulysses, a 24-lecture audiobook from The Great Courses by Professor James A. W. Heffernan. It’s available at Audible.com for $35 or 1 credit, and at iTunes for $30. A detail description of that can be found at The Great Courses site, but it’s too expensive to buy there when it’s not on sale.
One reason to listen to Ulysses is it sounds wonderful. Especially if read by a narrator with an Irish accent.
I usually like to read one large classic literary novel each year, so this year I thought I’d go all out for Ulysses. Ulysses can be daunting to read, because some sections of it feel like gobbledygook. Plus it has the reputation of being very intellectual. Strangely, it’s not intellectual, at least the parts I’ve read so far. It reminds me more of modern observational stand-up comedy. The book is very sexual and bodily, dealing with all kinds of human appetites and passions. Where the book gets into trouble with most modern readers is the stream-of-conscious passages. Joyce wanted to show how our minds work – which is often incoherently, with lots of free associations and unconscious impulses.
The reason to read Ulysses is because it divides classic literature and modern literature, in the same way the inventions of Thomas Edison divides humanity between that of gas light and electric light. Or the way George Carlin and Richard Pryor divides stand-up comedy before the seven deadly words you can’t say on TV, or the difference between Marlo Thomas’ That Girl and Girls on HBO. Some inventions, some works of art, some scientific insights, just change the whole human race. Understanding those changes are personally enlightening.
We’re constantly redefining what’s modern, which is another reason why it’s hard to read Ulysses. To young readers today, this 1922 novel is not shocking, other than the fact that characters don’t talk on smartphones or socialize on the Internet. To Joyce, his youth seemed radically different from the world of his parents, and he spent so many years trying to capture June 16, 1904 that I wonder if Joyce noticed the world radically changed again by 1922?
Ulysses is a novel, but it’s both literary archeology, and from the viewpoint of the 22nd century, historical insight into the early 20th century.