Big Book Summer 2023

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).

Why Ulysses?

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.

Reading Strategy

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:

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…


  1. I read Ulysses a couple of years ago with some friends and read The Odyssey at the same time so we could match the journeys. I think it’s absolutely brilliant and not a waste of time at all, although it is a commitment! It must have been wonderful for your friend to be in Dublin on its anniversary, we did go and it was amazing. Have you read Portrait of the Artist? I think that’s a good introduction to Stephen Dedalus.

    • Hi Jane, thanks for sharing a positive perspective on the novel, and how great that you also attended the anniversary celebration. I have read Portrait of the Artist but it was a long time ago and I don’t remember much. Ulysses seems to be going much better as I take my time with it.

  2. Brave you are! Your approach seems great and if I were to tackle this mammoth I’d want to do something similar. My own big book this year is The Count of Monte Cristo, which must surely be the complete opposite of Ulysses in many ways (aside from being big and epic.) All the best for your project!

    • I enjoyed The Count of Monte Cristo and hope you are as well. That was the first book I read when we moved to Connecticut. It was before I started looking for a new job so I spent quality hours with it for days. Pure reading pleasure it was.

    • Wonderful, thank you for sharing this! It _is_ a daunting book but tips and reference aids are truly helping me appreciate this work more than if I continued to try to plow through it.

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