It is time again for Sue Jackson’s Big Book Summer Reading Challenge! This challenge runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day (May 25 – Sept 4). Participants read one or more books that are 400+ pages. You can find all of the details about this challenge and how to sign up over on Sue’s blog, Book by Book (you do not need a blog to participate).
My first Big Book this year is Ulysses by James Joyce. For 99.6% of my life I had zero interest in reading this classic, but in recent years it has been creeping up on me. In 2022 my friend Colleen, who is a fan, went to Dublin for the annual Bloomsday celebration. The novel is set over the course of one day, 16 June 1904, and was published in 1922 so she was there for the 100th anniversary celebration. Colleen and I exchanged a flurry of emails about her trip, Bloomsday, and Ulysses. I felt the stirrings of a reading itch.
Then, last semester, I took a course called the History of the Book for which a research project was required. I looked into the bookselling activities of Madge Jenison and Mary Mowbray-Clarke who opened The Sunwise Turn bookstore in NYC in 1919. Their store has been forgotten by history, but Sylvia Beach’s, Shakespeare and Company, was a contemporary shop that has not faded from literary lore. I did some research on Beach’s bookstore to compare and contrast what I discovered about The Sunwise Turn.
As you might know, Sylvia Beach was the first publisher of Ulysses and the probable creator of Bloomsday. I read Beach’s memoir in which Joyce and his Big Book take up a lot of space. By mid-semester I came to the personal understanding that I will not feel like a proper literary historian or historian of early 20th century bookstores without reading Ulysses.
Ulysses has a reputation as hard novel to read. I decided I would just read the book through and not worry about understanding it this first time. I created a reading schedule designed to swiftly get through the novel. It turned out to be completely unrealistic.
I knew it would be impossible to understand the novel without the aid of reference books, but I did not realize what a dense, slow read it would be. I almost burnout trying to stick to that reading schedule over the first four or five days. After taking a few days off from Ulysses, I decided to read it one hour a day. Two days into this new plan and I think it might work.
I also broke with not consulting reference books and went to the library over the weekend to seek help. On the shelves I found:
- Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Don Gifford, et al.
- The Bloomsday Book: A Guide through Joyce’s Ulysses by Harry Blamires. (Link goes to the new updated edition.)
- Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece by Declan Kiberd. (The paperback edition linked here features a photo of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses. I don’t remember where, but I recently read about this photo. It was not a staged photo but a snapshot taken while she was waiting around during a photoshoot. Monroe was a big reader.)
Flipping through these books gave me a motivation boost.
I am still not too concerned about understanding everything while reading this novel, but it helps to have a clue about what the hell is going on.
Which brings me to my final point for this post. As I said in a recent Book Cougars book tube video, I am vacillating between thinking Ulysses is interesting and a colossal waste of time.
More to come…