Saturday, June 13, 2015

Weekends Are Difficult: Pre-Bloomsday Edition

Ulysses is commonly considered one of the most difficult books in the English language and, though I think some of that reputation is unwarranted, it’s certainly up there. And I do think there is value in having these avatars of certain concepts, like The Great Gatsby as “The Great American Novel,” or Shakespeare as “The Greatest Writer Who Ever Lived,” because they give us a starting point for conversations that get beyond the facades of archetypes. (Though we do have to get beyond the archetypes for the conversation to have value.) How we read Hamlet or The Great Gatsby informs how we read everything else and teaches us how to talk about everything else. And so how we read Ulysses, when we think of it as “The Most Difficult Book,” teaches how to read everything else we consider difficult.

So with that in mind, here is one simple tip (Clickbate FTW!) for how to read Ulysses that I think will help you climb any literary Everest you might attempt.

Relax. I know, I know. Yeah, there can be more to it, like reading it with a friend, brushing up on your classics, having a historic map of Dublin handy, remembering that it is supposed to be funny and dirty, getting used to the absence of quotation marks, developing your ability to parse internal monologue from external speech or third person narration, accepting that Ulysses is one of those books that doesn’t always fit into your reading life no matter how noble your intentions are, some people even recommend skipping the first three chapters of Stephen Daedelus being super-Stephen Daedelus and starting with Leopold Bloom making breakfast in chapter four (I don’t like that idea, but well, it’s an idea), and all of those do or could help and not only make for a successful first read, but allow for deeper more satisfying reads.

But really, it’s just relax. Yes, there will be parts of Ulysses that don’t understand. I’ve read it six times or so and there are parts of it I still don’t understand (Oxen in the Sun, I’m looking at you). Ulysses and difficult books in general are written so there is always something just out of reach so that you can return to them over and over, so there is always something to learn or discover, so they can speak to imaginations born decades or centuries after they were composed. Unless you actually have a test on Ulysses the next day, you don’t have a test on Ulysses the next day. You don’t need all the answers. And you don’t need to feel, inadequate or frustrated if you get to the end of a sentence or paragraph or chapter (or the book) and feel like you didn’t understand a thing you read. Get what you can get out of the first read (you’ll probably surprise yourself with just how much that is) and just know that you’ll get even more the next time.

OK. There is one more thing. (It never really is “One Simple Trick.”) Joyce did not pour his life into Ulysses so people wouldn’t understand it. He didn’t endure poverty, censorship, and struggle just to prove how smart he was. I think a lot of the problem readers have with difficult books is they start reading with the assumption of difficulty and so build a barrier between themselves and the book. So, before opening the book, assume you will understand it, assume you will enjoy it, assume it is a work of profound humanism written to speak to everyone.

You still might not get through and you still might not enjoy Ulysses, and that’s fine. Ulysses isn’t for everybody. But even if this difficult book isn’t for you, others will be and this one (OK, two) simple tricks will help you read them.

No comments:

Blog Archive