How To Read Ulysses In Under Five Years
Guess what today is? It's June 28th, and there are only 353 days until the next Bloomsday. So you should probably start reading Ulysses now, unless you want your name in the Lamb's Book of Life annotated with an asterisk reading "uncultured Philistine."

If you're a human, you have a reason to read this book. But Ulysses is long, confusing, and there are lots of big words. How does one begin such a quest? Rocks, tell us in plain words!

Here are some suggestions on how you can actually read this book that has been damned by both God and government. I have broken recommendations into four different categories, because in life, you're either a pro or you're a noob. Or you're somewhere in the middle.

Before I first checked Ulysses out from the library, I thought I was one of the smart kids. Then I started reading. On the first page, I saw Latin. Thinking this might be like a Gary Soto book, I flipped to the end to look for the foreign vocabulary definitions. No luck. I trudged on dutifully until I got to Dedalus brooding in the sand and realized I had no idea what the Christmas this book was about or was going to be about. But after five years of toil and inwit, I finished it. Here's how I would advise you if you want to finish it faster than I did.

  • Use a guide to Ulysses, and use it sparingly on your first read. Due to Ulysses' status as one of the most influential books in the history of literature, incredible amounts of criticism have appeared in both traditional and hypertext forms.

    Noob: Check out Ulysses for Dummies, the animated gif version of Ulysses. Remember: sound out words that you don't know! Take notes, gentle warrior. You're gonna need 'em.

    Middlebie: Buy a copy of Don Gifford's Ulysses Annotated. Use it sparingly but refer to it when you really have no idea what the characters are talking about. Also refer to the Robotwisdom guide, IQ Infinity, an excellent (and free) hypertext web resource. Joyce is noted for obscurantism at times, but it's the kind of obscurantism that good puzzlemakers have. Think of the book as a cool 3-D Millennium Falcon puzzle. Build the base first and work your way up until you get to the awesome circle on the top and the sweet fin back wings. Puzzles are fun.

    Oldbie: You probably read all of the criticism in your PhD classes on Irish Literature. Good for you. Now get out of academia for a while and start researching alternative perspectives on the book. Consider the Ulysses spacecraft as a mirror image of Bloom's epic journey on that day, traveling to the North Pole of our sun. Your professors were wrong about so many things. Make yourself right.

    Ancientbie: You donated enough of your collection to build an entire Joyce wing at the local library, so I think you probably know where to start. Instead of reading books about Joyce, it's time to write them! Please start off by figuring out exactly what "U.P., up" means for the rest of us. And while you're working out the enigmas, who is Martha Clifford?

  • Read The Odyssey. If you've already read it once, read it again. Knowledge of The Odyssey is a key component to a clearer understanding of the simultaneous satire and reverence of Homer within the book.

    Noob: Get your mom to tell you everything she remembers about The Odyssey from the Cliff's Notes she read in 9th grade.

    Middlebie: Buy a good, modern version of it. Trust me, if you continue studying literature, you'll refer to it all the fucking time. My personal favorite is Stanley Lombardo's translation, but any copy will do.

    Oldbie: Learn ancient Greek and read The Odyssey again. Homer's personal edition.

    Ancientbie: Call Edith Hamilton an "oversimplifying simpleton" and be on your way.

  • Start reading Joyce's earlier work. This seems like an obvious first step, but it didn't occur to me until about a month after I started.

    Noob: A good primer is Green Eggs and Ham, because of the national color of Ireland (green) and the youthful whimsy and rhyming, which substitutes nicely for the first section of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

    Middlebie: Basically, you have to read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man before it's worth starting Ulysses. I would advise starting with this, along with his poetry (Chamber Music and Pomes Penyeach) and one of the greatest short collections ever written, Dubliners. All of these are far more digestible than a lengthy Joyce novel, even when you divide up the novel chapters like short stories.

    Oldbie: Check out Stephen Hero. You might like it, you might not. But either way, you will have read Stephen Hero and have an opinion on it.

    Ancientbie: Continue touching yourself to those Joyce/Barnacle letters. You're doing just fine.

And now, tips for everyone reading Ulysses, regardless of your newbie-ancientbie status.
  • Brush up on your Irish history. The text of Ulysses, along with assuming the reader has received an outstanding classical education, also assumes you know at least a little bit about Irish history. Please find out who Charles Stewart Parnell was. It will help you with reading this book as well as your life.
  • Brush up on your church history. A good starting place is the Summa Theologica. After that, you can always move on to more intensive theological study.

  • Have fun! Remember, the world is a terrifying place full of complex incomprehensibility and absurdity, a mad carnival of pleasure and pain through which you move slowly -- until the end, when everyone's litter usurps the streets. This book will help you cope!

If you have done these things, you will be able to read Ulysses pretty easily. Enjoy your expanded consciousness!

Posted by kevin on Sat, 28 Jun 2008 21:17:48 -0400 -- permanent link

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