Three Useful Internet Sites for a Dynamic Reading of Ulysses by James Joyce

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Reading Ulysses by James Joyce can be very difficult, even daunting. Many well read readers consider Ulysses the number one novel of all time, because of it’s rich complexity and advanced writing techniques. Joyce intentionally made Ulysses a reading challenge, full of Easter eggs for readers to find and decipher, making it a novel worthy of multiple readings.

I have tried reading Ulysses before, but even after reading Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man three times, I wasn’t ready. One major barrier for me is my poor reading skills. I’ve been conditioned to read fast, always wanting to know what’s going to happen, by the plot driven novels of my youth. Ulysses is more like a great painting that you must study slowly and carefully, and for most of my life I never had the patience.

The range of what I could read took a quantum leap forward in 2002 when I started listening to audio books. Listening makes me read slow, and that changes everything. Also, professional readers showcase writing far better than my own inner voice. It’s like the difference between reading poetry and hearing it read aloud. Quality fiction should be heard. It should sound dramatic and dynamic, even poetical. Bad writing sticks out when read aloud. Once I started listening to Ulysses I could get into it. But still there was much I was missing.

Ulysses is famous for its stream of conscious writing techniques. If you just read it with your eyes, it’s easy to confuse the narrator with inner monologues. And even good audio book narrators don’t always distinguish between the two.

Ulysses is also full of allusions to real world and literary history, using colloquial and idiomatic words and phrases that are long out of fashion. Plus Joyce frequently cites lines of Latin, songs and poems that well educated people knew back then, but most people don’t know about today.

Luckily, I’ve stumbled upon two sites on the internet that are wonderful tools for helping me to read Ulysses in a very efficient manner. The first is  The Joyce Project that features an online version of Ulysses. Now most people hate reading online, but I have a major reason to get over that prejudice. The second site that I use is an audio performance of Ulysses at Archive.org. I read online as I listen to this online recording. This recording is very special because they use different actors for different characters, and they use a special effect for when Joyce is having his character speak in their internal voice. This is a tremendous advantage for understanding Ulysses. And I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to hear Joyce read by someone that can pronounce everything correctly, and even offer good accents.

As an extra bonus, The Joyce Project has an annotation mode you can turn on, and certain words and phrases will appear in color that you can click on to read for elaboration. What I do is read and listen to each episode, and then go back and click on all the highlights. Here’s what the plain text looks like, then with the annotations highlighted, and then with the pop-up for the first annotation.  Clicking on the image will enlarge it.

The Joyce Project 1

The Joyce Project 2

The Joyce Project 3

But what works really well is to open the The Joyce Project and the Archive.org audio player windows so they overlap, like this:

Read and Listen

This allows me start and stop the audio easily as I read, in case I do want to stop my reading to study an annotation.

Finally, there’s a third dimension to using the web for reading and studying Joyce – there’s a goldmine of supplemental material. I’m not pursing the study guides on my first reading except in a very limited way. Ulysses is a black hole for scholarship.

One site that is frequently recommended to me is Frank Delaney’s podcast re:Joyce. Delaney does one podcast a week and is up to #245, but only to episode five in the novel. He estimates it will take him 25 years to finish the project. Delaney is a famous author and broadcaster, and knows Joyce’s Ireland, so his rich voice and literary experience makes him a great guide for traversing the land of Joyce. His enthusiasm enhances the enjoyment of reading Joyce.

I figure the first two tools, the annotated text and the performance narration, are the two best tools I’ve discovered for reading Ulysses for the first time. And the Frank Delaney podcast is a wonderful supplement for those people who want to take their first step into Joyce scholarship.

JWH

Creating Book Club to Read Ulysses by James Joyce

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 ulysses-2015-owner@yahoogroups.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-Gabler edition

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.

JWH

The State of Freedom 100 Years Ago

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 14, 2015

If you think terrorism and war is bad now, just study how things were one hundred years ago. We think of America as the land of the free, but during the 1910s people were being jailed for printing words and jokes about things we commonly see in sitcoms. Language we’d consider G-rated would get you jailed back then if you used it in a literary work that was sent through the U.S. mails.  Writing about contraception, condoms or abortion could also get you thrown in the slammer. Using phrases like “snot-green” or “old fart” would get you labeled as a horrible lower-class person. And it sickened and horrified cultured people when James Joyce wrote about Leopold Bloom eating organ meats, even though everyone ate organ meats. One hundred years ago people just didn’t like facing up to the gritty details of life, details we embrace today.

Because of laws regulating decency, sedition, sexual practices and other moral issues, most of 21st century writers, movie makers, publishers would be jailed if their work appeared a hundred years ago. This doesn’t mean the common people didn’t say anything they wanted, but state and federal governments tried very hard to control what people printed and shipped through the mails. If liberals think conservatives are controlling now, just read about the history of censorship in America. We’ve come a long way baby.

The Most Dangerous Book - Kevin Birmingham

The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham thoroughly entertained me with his history of censorship and legal battles to publish what is now considered the best novel in English literature. Even if you have no interest in James Joyce, this book is fascinating history. It does deal with Joyce’s immense struggle to be an artist, and to push the limits of literary expression, but it’s also about why and how our society wanted to rein in artists. It’s about the editors and publishers that risked jail to publish writers like Joyce. In 1920, the year my father was born, Jon Stewart would probably have been sentenced to ten years in jail for each episode of his show, if they could have seen The Daily Show back then.

I listened to The Most Dangerous Book to prepare me to listened to Ulysses. I keep trying to get into Ulysses but I always fail. Ulysses is an almost impossible book to get into, very tough going, but not because Joyce was so intellectual and learned. Joyce wrote about ordinary events and people, but used new writing techniques to show how people actually thought and felt.  Since we often think about sex and bodily functions, or feel thoughts about people we’d never express, our minds are chaotic tangles of incoherent phrases and perceptions, and Ulysses tries to capture this stream of consciousness. In the 1910s and 1920s, readers found his experiments startling, offensive, unnerving and threatening.  Some European and American government officials thought Joyce’s apparent nonsense could be coded messages of espionage. Even his most ardent admirers struggled to decode his prose.

Joyce set the stage for comic observations about humanity that armies of standup comics still mine today. Yet, a hundred years ago, this so horrified government officials they did their damnedest to erase, and keep from the public. Their paranoia over strange ideas was fueled by radicals and anarchists who promoted conflict, disorder and social unrest. There were hundreds of terrorists bombings back then each year. The government associated anything Avant-garde with radicalism.

We have practically no censorship now, and a lot less social unrest and terrorist bombs. Strangely, the lingering forms of censorship we see today often come from terrorist bombers who want to revert our freedoms. The Comstock Law of 1873 was a kind of American Sharia Law, and the people who terrorized the literary world back then was the U.S. Post Office.

The founding fathers made free speech legal, but they didn’t understand what that meant. We’re still exploring the social implications of real free speech.  Kevin Birmingham’s book is a stunning history of the fight for free speech in the early part of the 20th century. He focuses on an array of literary freedom fighters who were directly or indirectly connected to helping James Joyce get his book published. Whether or not you’re interested in literary history hardly matters if you love history itself when considering reading this book.

History is like a jigsaw puzzle with an infinite number of pieces. A great history book is one that helps you put hundreds of pieces together to reveal the big image of the past. A great history book also helps connect its images with pieces of images you’ve assembled from other great history books. The Most Dangerous Book helped me see a lot more of 20th century American and European history.

I still find listening to Ulysses hard going, but I’m making a greater effort because of The Most Dangerous Book. Birmingham explained the tremendous struggle by Joyce to write his book, and why. Birmingham gives a great deal of background facts that interpret each chapter in Ulysses. But most important, he testifies to the valiant effort so many people made that allows us to read Ulysses and books like it. I’m very grateful to those people. I think we all should be.

JWH