Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Borrowing a Critics's Brain

Too often, I find that contemporary criticism is more interested in proving a particular point than in helping readers deepen their understanding of the book in question. I believe book critics are like park rangers or tour guides in museums; readers don’t need critics to get a lot out of books, but critics provide the skill and knowledge to open up a whole new understanding of books. They give readers the opportunity to see things they otherwise never would have and to do so with a better overall understanding of the context of the book. Though I think there is a lot of value in “making a point” criticism (criticism whose first goal is to convince readers of something in relation to the book in question), I wish there were more general criticism; criticism that demonstrates the kind of exploration that great readers do while they read. (The New York Review of Books is filled with the latter and that's probably why I like it so much.)


One way to understand Declan Kiberd’s Ulysses and Us is as the story of an intelligent sophisticated reader, reading an intelligent and sophisticated book. Kiberd organizes his reading around daily actions that he believes are explored and celebrated in Ulysses; walking, eating, reading, ogling, teaching, etc, but his writing goes beyond a strict adherence to showing that episode X is devoted to mundane activity Y. He essentially allows us a look into his mind as he reads Ulysses; the mind of a Professor of Anglo-Irish Literature at the University College Dublin, of the author of Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation and Irish Classics, and of the editor of The Annotated Students’ Ulysses.


You don’t have to have read Ulysses to enjoy Ulysses and Us and though I always hope more people read Ulysses, Ulysses and Us is interesting even for those with no plans whatsoever to read Joyce’s masterpiece. Kiberd gives us a chance to borrow the brain of a critic and use it to read for a while.

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