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Why Should I Read This? Ulysses by James Joyce

July 14, 2015
I should have known from the cover that this book wasn't about Roman mythology.

I should have known from the cover that this book wasn’t about Roman mythology.

When it comes to reading classic literature, there are a lot of challenges.  The writing style from novels published generations ago can confuse today’s readers.  Some of the books have lots of references that today’s readers don’t understand.  And a lot of those classic novels are just too long for our short attention spans.  Any one of those challenges can deter people like me from trying a book.  But when a novel is challenging on every level, I know I’m screwed.

The worst of all of these classic novels might be Ulysses by James Joyce.  I don’t know if Ulysses really is the worst of all the tough classic novels because I haven’t read most of the tough classic novels.  I’ve been told it’s not fair to judge a book that you haven’t read, but I disagree.  You can judge most books within a few pages, if you can make it that far.  I’ve read the first few pages of Ulysses, and I know I don’t want to read it anymore.

I’ve never heard anybody say that they actually liked Ulysses.  Supposedly, Vladimir Nabokov said it was brilliant, but he wrote Lolita, so he’s a literary author and his opinion doesn’t count. Besides, I’ve never seen video of Nabokov saying Ulysses was brilliant, so I don’t necessarily believe that he said it.

On the other hand, I can find normal people who claim they enjoyed Moby Dick or War and Peace.  I might not believe those people who say they liked Moby Dick or War and Peace or Great Expectations, but they say it.  But nobody has ever said that they liked reading Ulysses.  The best anybody will say is that they appreciate Ulysses.

Appreciating is different from enjoying.  I don’t mind appreciating a brilliant painting or a brilliant sculpture because I can move on quickly to another piece of art that I actually like (but probably isn’t brilliant).  I can’t just appreciate a novel like Ulysses because it takes a really long time to appreciate it, and I don’t have that kind of time to learn how to appreciate it.  After all, I have a full-time job, and I’m married with kids.  If somebody wants to confuse me with an obscure painting, I don’t mind looking at it, but I’m not going to read a 700 page novel just to appreciate it.

Even if I successfully completed Ulysses, I couldn’t brag about reading it.  I mean, I could, but very few people would know enough about literature to be impressed.  If I read something long and difficult, I want everybody in my social group to know about it.  Everybody knows Moby Dick and War and Peace, and most people are even aware of Atlas Shrugged.  If you read those novels (or claim to), everybody is impressed.  But Ulysses?  This might be the most difficult chore of them all, and nobody would care.  If people aren’t impressed, then it’s probably not worth the time.

Ulysses even has a misleading title.  I had high hopes for Ulysses when I was teenager, believing it was the Roman version of The Odyssey.  I had read The Odyssey in junior high, and I was hoping for a more updated version, but I soon learned that updated versions are sometimes too updated.  When I first tried reading it, I didn’t get far enough in Ulysses to “get” that it kind of was an updated version of The Odyssey.  I just thought the author had written a really long book with an intentionally misleading title to fool readers into believing they were reading about Greek and Roman mythology.

A few months later, I bought Atlas Shrugged.  After that, I stopped buying books about Greek/Roman mythology, unless they were written by Bullfinch.  Bullfinch had flaws, but at least I knew what I was buying.

One good thing about Ulysses is that it was originally written in English, so I don’t have to slog through a translation.  So many of the difficult classics were written in French or Russian, and a lot of the nuances of a novel can’t really be translated.  People who read Les Miserables in French will get a lot more out of it than somebody who reads a translation, unless the person reading the French version can’t read French.  Maybe Ulysses is better when it’s translated into another language.

Another good thing about Ulysses is that it isn’t as bad as Finnegans Wake.  At least I can understand Ulysses when I read it slowly.  I have to mouth the words and hold my finger underneath each word as I go, but I can understand it.  Finnegans Wake, I have no chance.  I think James Joyce liked to confuse readers on purpose.  You know you have it made as an author when you can intentionally confuse your readers, and people will still buy your books and critics call you brilliant.  If I try to confuse my readers, I’m told my writing is incoherent (and they’re probably right).

I’m told James Joyce wrote some good short stories.  Maybe it’s better to read James Joyce short stories because, even if they’re confusing, they’ll be short.

It takes a lot to get me to change my mind.  I’m pretty sure I’ll never read Ulysses, no matter what anybody says.  Call me stubborn, call me closed-minded.  But I still enjoy reading opinions that are different from mine.  If you disagree with me, I won’t tell you to shut up or call you stupid or try to get you fired from your job.  Every once in a while, I actually change my mind because somebody who disagrees with me persuades me.  But I’m pretty sure I can’t be convinced to read Ulysses by James Joyce.

*****

But enough about me.  What do you think?  Is there any good reason for a guy like me to read Ulysses?  What other books would you refuse to read?  What other novels have you given up on?  Other than Finnegans Wake, are there any novels even more challenging than Ulysses?  Have you ever been persuaded by somebody with whom you originally disagreed?  Have you ever gotten somebody fired for disagreeing with you?

*****

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37 Comments
  1. I tried three times before I finally succeeded in reading Ulysses. Although I didn’t exactly like it at the time, it has since grown on me; I’m not afraid to say it: I like Ulysses. I also like all the other novels you’ve listed in this post, with two exceptions: Finnegan’s Wake and Lolita. I didn’t even make it to the second page of Finnegan’s Wake and I don’t think I’ll ever return to it.

    I can’t give you any good reasons to read Ulysses, but neither can I give you an good reasons to not read it. Ultimately, the choice is yours. Note: If you do decide to tackle it, don’t read it on an e-reader. It’s brutal.

    • “Note: If you do decide to tackle it, don’t read it on an e-reader. It’s brutal.”-

      The whole purpose of the e-reader was to avoid carrying around those 700 page books. But the copy of Ulysses at my local library is in remarkably good shape, so I may rely on that one.

    • You are so right about Finnegan’s Wake. My god, that first page!

      As for Lolita, Nabokov’s immortal enchantment, it’s the language! Oh…and, of course, the Shakespearean tragedy of it all.

  2. I enjoyed Ulysses. It is James version of the Odyssey as an Irish Man goes through his day. Once you get into the rhythm of distinguishing his silent thoughts from his spoken thoughts, you can start to follow the story pretty well. The story starts at home, goes to a funeral, explores town, has trouble with Sirens, and a late return home. Sounds like the Odyssey to me. Oh, and I recommend James Joyce’s easier to read short stories.

    • “I enjoyed Ulysses.”-

      That’s a sentence I don’t see very much, so I did a double take when I read it.

      I think I agree with your recommendation. A person like me would do much better with his short stories.

  3. seanwittyone permalink

    Read Dubliners.

  4. I loved Ulysses!! But, I’m not going to lie, the first time, I read while listening to an AudioBook, which really isn’t reading, it’s totally cheating. But I’ve read it from cover to cover four times since and love it every time, including the original serial published in The Little Review in the late 1910s. Your post has inspired me to read it again.
    –Morgan Howland
    The Pop Song History blog

    • “I loved Ulysses!!”-

      I had to reread your comment several times to make sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. Okay, it looks like you actually meant it. If I never read Ulysses, at least I can brag that somebody who commented on my blog read it four times and loved it.

      Maybe Audiobooks are cheating, but I believe in cheating sometimes, as long as nobody gets hurt.

  5. My younger brother bought me Ulysses as a gift. I haven’t started it yet. After reading this post, I’m debating whether or not the gift was possibly a cruel joke… Though I suppose I’ll still give it a try… :}

    • If it was a gift, you have to at least try it. At least he didn’t give you Finnegans Wake.

      And if you do finish Ulysses, you have extreme bragging rights.

  6. I tried reading Joyce’s “masterpiece” last summer since it’s often quoted as being the greatest novel ever written. I made it 30 pages in before I tapped out. It wasn’t worth it. A lot of book nerds think something is automatically brilliant if they don’t understand it.

  7. In answer to your title, you shouldn’t read it. I read and mostly liked War and Peace, Moby Dick and Great Expectations and I hated and couldn’t understand Ulysses. The only reason to read it is to check it off some list or other. At least I couldn’t find any enjoyment in it.

  8. I feel the same way about anything David Foster Wallace. Any professor I’ve met who loves and teaches James Joyce also tends to love DFW. I will never understand anyone who loves Herman Melville stories. What is it they love? All the obscure d**k references?

    • ON the topic of books you had to put down, I was totally thinking of Infinite Jest. I have tried to read that book so many times. I just don’t get, I guess.

  9. While I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed reading Ulysses, I will say that it really fascinated me, which is sorta like enjoyment. I read it for a class, which was possibly helpful because I think reading this on its own, without any context or external help to tell you what the hell is going on, is almost impossible. (The prof had no real idea of what she was getting us into and let anyone who wanted quit reading it and move on to the next book.) You know how some writers make the reader do a lot of the heavy lifting? It’s like Joyce just didn’t even bother thinking about how to make this intelligible, so you have to be willing to put a lot of effort into it.

    Sidenote: one night while flipping through tv channels I came across a film in black and white; the dialogue was confusing and in multiple languages and I had no idea what was going on, but I just *knew* it had to do with James Joyce. I was right – it was Finnegan’s Wake.

  10. Rahul permalink

    Ulysses is not one of my favourites. I like the novel for wide use of rhetorical tools, figures of speech and especially for the last chapter that is the best example of “stream of consciousness” as a device and presented by Joyce without any punctuation – totally capturing the essence of this device. I agree with you that the book isn’t easy to read, because the book is also a good example of convincing use of hypotaxis in weaving complicated sentences.

    Take this sentence- “As natural as any and every natural act of a nature expressed or understood executed in natured nature by natural creatures in accordance with his, her and their natured natures, of dissimilar similarity. As not so calamitous as a cataclysmic annihilation of the planet in consequence of a collision with a dark sun.” The things is James Joyce must have been quite playful and his wits quite exalted at the time of writing this novel.

  11. His short stories are definitely more concrete than Ulysses. It is a great book but tough to get through, if for no other reason, the Molly bloom chapter is brilliant!

  12. “What other novels have you given up on?”
    -1984
    -The Name of the Rose
    -The War of the Worlds
    -Eragon
    -Eaters of the Dead
    -The Pilgrims Progress
    -A Confederacy of Dunces
    Just to name a few.

    • That’s a good list. I’ve actually finished a couple of your choice, but they were relatively short.

      I tried A Confederacy of Dunces at least three times, and I’ve never gotten far. Maybe I’ll try that again before I try to get to page four in Ulysses.

      • I also gave up on A Confederacy of Dunces, but followed an audio course as I read Ulysses. No way I would have made it to the end otherwise, and it was still an unenjoyable slog.

        I think it has some brilliant phrases – and from reading Dubliners, he really can write (from reading POTAAAYM, he should’ve stuck to short stories 🙂 ) – but it is an academic’s book, for the literary crowd, and never for the masses like The Odyssey, Don Quixote, Shakespeare’s stuff, Dickens’…

  13. I’m having trouble reading ‘Great Expectations’ but I’ll still read it, because although it’s challenging I can’t suffer to buy a book and then not finish it. Ulysses I started reading a year ago and got till page 10, then I thought it’s hard for me and I’ll read it later and you know what I’ll read it later. You said you tell people that you read this book and they’ll be impressed, if you read to impress I don’t know what to say to you. I read 50 Shades even when many people said it’s useless because I wanted to judge it for myself. Why should you read Ulysses? I can’t answer that but I’ll certainly say if you read it you won’t regret it. It will be hard but not useless. I’m going to read it next year after I’ve finished my bachelor’s degree. Perhaps I’ll understand it a bit.

    • “…because although it’s challenging I can’t suffer to buy a book and then not finish it.”

      I used to be like that. If I spent money on a book, I wanted to make sure I got my money’s worth out of it. Now my philosophy has changed. If I spend my own money on a book, I can decide for myself how much of it I’m going to read.

      • I understand your point here. So if you decide to finish Ulysses in near future I would like to know what you thought of that.

  14. Shaun DeLoach permalink

    See, you can even spark a lively discussion talking about how you don’t want to read Joyce because anything Joycian is going to be interesting. If I wrote this, I would be expressing this because I had issues, similiar to you, committing to a daunting read I wasn’t sure I could finish, wanting to read it, looking for excuses not to read it, wondering if I really want to read it or feel I should and am therefore lashing out at it, (in that way a wierd sort of insecurity) or I hadn’t read the book but I feel as if I wouldn’t like it, think it pompous or over-rated. It’s what Virginia Woolf thought of Ulysses. My Ulyssess if I wanted to condemn something without having read it would be Atlas Shrug. Don’t get me started. But I read Ulysses – 3 times. Easily. Joyce did all the thinking for you. He asks the reader to focus and absorb instead of trying to comprehend. The problem is his works are so thought provoking. Can I suggest you read some Samuel Beckett before Joyce. Beckett is purposefully absurd but hilarious and the conciousness of his work while reading it is much more shocking one knows or doesn’t care what’s happening and Joyce was easier to digest in a traditional way; no so deconstructed. Despite this, to me, Beckett was always easier to absorb… Just do it. Read Ulysses. You know you want to. I can’t finish Anna Karenina. I love it but I always stop at some point. In my case. I’m afraid of having my mind too stimulated. Maybe that’s your issue.

  15. I was made to read Ulysses at Uni. In a list that included Paradise Lost, The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman, and American Psycho, I still consider it the worst, and dullest, book I’ve ever had to read.

  16. I’m so impressed – all of these wonderfuly, intelligent people who’ve read Ulysses. I’ve never read it, allowing the small snippets I have read and other people’s opinions cancel out any desire I have for bragging rights. All I know is, if I wrote this today, it would never get published (unless I did it myself) and it would never – ever – be read and if anyone did read it, I’d get the worst review on Amazon anyone’s ever had. And if not a lierary genius, then Joyce was defintely a financial one for persuading his publisher to put money into his books in the first place.
    And as for books I never finished? The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, which must be waaaaaay easier than Ulysses or Finegan’s Wake. Also couldn’t finish The Book Thief.

  17. Dubliners is actually pretty good.

    I’ve never even picked up Ulysses. The closest I’ve come is walking past it in a bookstore and using it as a landmark: “Ok, I’m in the J section now…”. Every now and then I get curious if only for the challenge of actually making it through, but there are enough books on my list (over 200!) that I AM excited about. Besides, I’ve graduated–I don’t have to do “homework” anymore. 😛

  18. I know what you mean about reading classics. I find them so difficult sometimes, slow and complicated. I have this huge sense of guilt over my head when I think to myself: “maybe I just don’t like reading classics”.
    But I am scared to actually admit it, worried that a band of pretentious hipsters will jump out at me, wrestle my non-classic-book from my hands and declare, “you don’t deserve to call yourself a true reader!”

    https://lauraoosterbeek.wordpress.com/

    • Well, there is so much to read, you shouldn’t let anyone’s shallow point of view make you feel guilty. Just remember, the presumption to knowledge without the possession of it isn’t arrogance – it’s the very height of it! Journey on sister…

  19. The only classic novel that I ever gave up on (other than Finnegan’s Wake after the first page, no less) was Moby Dick. I’ve tried at least ten times in the past thirty years but I fall asleep after 20 or 30 pages. Make no mistake though: I have always considered this my failing. One day though…

  20. I have Ulysses in my shelf, but I’m still waiting for the “right time” to try and read it. I don’t know if the right time will ever come. I also tried reading Anna Karenina and got through 1/4 of the book before I gave up on it. Someday…

  21. My professor made us read excerpts from Ulysses and I knew from the start that it’s supposed to be something I should want to read but I can’t really bring myself to read, and I kind of feel bad about it since I’m majoring in literature. Anyway, funny, because I have Ulysses in my shelf, unread, and collecting dust, but looking impressive anyway just because it’s Ulysses.

    By the way, that same professor who made me read Ulysses took ages to read the book, and at some point in her life she just started bringing the book around to look impressive and no one had to know that she hadn’t read it yet.

  22. I didn’t read ULYSSES, because I never got very interested in James Joyce’s earlier stories, with the exception of “The Dead” and in that case really just the last scene that describes the falling snow.
    As for a book I’ve given up on–AMERICAN GODS by Neil Gaiman, which I bought because he’s such a phenomenon in contemporary literature. But the supernatural turns me off (except for Greek myth–but how could the gods be so cruel!!).

  23. Anonymous permalink

    Fuck you

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