Whenever I have a length of time free, whether a week or a whole summer, I make extravagant plans and to-do lists that invariably end up only half completed. But for the past two summers my reading goals have stuck: I read Infinite Jest and then, most recently, Ulysses. I picked summers because I knew I would need the time and freedom from other assigned readings, and began with Infinite Jest because I love DFW’s nonfiction. As for Ulysses, I had heard rumors of its throw-it-at-the-wall prose and confusing dialogue, and that a book of Ulysses references is longer than Ulysses itself. I was intrigued because I knew it would be a challenge. Not to say the least about the fact that it is also supposed to be one of the greatest works of Western literature ever written. Quite possibly the best book of 20th century fiction, depending on who you’re asking. It is, allegedly, difficult and Modernist and mind-boggling and funny. Very funny.
Reading began mid-May and spilled into the last days of June, but I can attest to the fact that the book is all those things and more. If you’d like a deep analysis of Ulysses, though, look elsewhere: what I am interested in discussing is not what I thought about while reading Ulysses but what everyone else thought of the fact that I was reading Ulysses.
Because it is one of those activities that automatically elicits opinion. I have nerdy, informed, bookish friends, and am working my way towards a degree in English. When I told any of them what I was reading, it was as if I’d said I was finally running that marathon, had booked the flights to Rome. Wow, I’ve heard it’s incredible! Great journey! But I was not living at college for the summer, and many of those bookish friends were hundreds of miles away. The friends at home were those I’d met doing the most revered extracurricular activity one can do in the suburbs: athletics. Reading Ulysses wasn’t compared to marathoning or extreme backpacking or skydiving when I told them how I spent some extra hours. I might as well have told them I’d made it my summer goal to pogo-stick across the state. I got blank stares, confused eyebrows, and a not insignificant number of “why’s.”
I didn’t know I needed to be asked why. Because it’s Ulysses? Isn’t that reason enough? My friends are intelligent in the opposite realm I am: they nerd out over working in science labs and completing complicated calculus equations. I tried using comparisons like that, explaining how unpacking this book was engaging and complex and rewarding the way their long hours peering through microscopes and coding were likewise. In response to this approach, they said, “But it’s a book. Why should it be like that at all.”
Back in 2005, before ebooks, before Amazon flipped the switch on traditional publishing, and before Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom ate everything else published that year, there was a little kerfuffle between Franzen and Ben Marcus over the topic of experimental fiction. In Harper’s, Marcus wrote that contemporary fiction was no longer innovative, and he blamed the realism of Jonathan Franzen for that death: his fiction was opposite the likes of Ulysses, which needs sustained study and a keen eye. Instead Franzen upheld human theatrics as his muse, giving readers enjoyment rather than exploration, and thought that all the reverence and kid-gloves used around Great Experimental Works unnecessary.
I’m simplifying both Marcus’ and Franzen’s ideas, and I don’t want to bring up this sort of debate six years later. But I was reminded of it again while reading about the hand-wringers whose current crusade isn’t the importance or good-riddance of complex and difficult books but the death of books as they exist. To keep perspective on where Ulysses etc will stand it might be important to take the blank stares of these engineers- and neuroscientists- in training to task. These are the kinds of people who see The Corrections or Freedom in the same camp as Ulysses: giant books so many people tell them they should read that the books become Brussels sprouts in their minds.
But these friends at home, attending large technical and research universities, are also the kinds of people who sped through The Hunger Games trilogy so quickly the pages ripped. I asked my friends why they read the books they do and was not surprised when I got answers that didn’t match my own—I’m studying this stuff, after all. I got a few “it’s fun” and “I’ve finished my TV shows,” but the universal answer was, in one form or another, “I like stories.”
There is a deep-seated need in all of humanity to be told stories. Some people like these stories to come with guns, bikinis, and a good dose of killing; some people want it to involve fairies; and others want it wrapped up in stream-of-consciousness mumbojumbo. The concern about the future of the publishing industry may be valid, but when people get high-voiced and shrieky about whether or not people will read more than Tweets in ten years, I can’t help but roll my eyes. They are really just concerned that people will not read what they deem that they should read: the Marcuses that nobody will read complicated books, the Franzens that nobody will read real ones.
Yes, I read Ulysses because of its importance: I knew it would not only be a good reference for my remaining years in undergraduate English classes but that it would award me (the very word a tell) a specific cultural signification. Having read the book says something about you as a person: your level of familiarity with literature, the amount of free hours you can spend not working or taking care of family. And in some, small, selfish way I wanted this recognition, for the same reason that people want designer bags. But this is clearly not the mode at which most people operate. If we want books to continue being relevant, outside of the groups of people who don’t need to be convinced of their worth, we have to remove the concept of a book being “hard” at all. It’s not that books shouldn’t be hard, but that books are not hard if we don’t want them to be. They’re just stories, after all.
So perhaps I can convince you, common or not-so-common reader, to read Ulysses, because I certainly couldn’t convince my at-home friends. Don’t look at it as a Brussels sprout, something to be “got through” on your way to something less taxing. Look at it as an interesting book that speaks across continents and generations that tells a story about a man, a city, and a way of life. Yes, it is one of the greatest books of the 20th century, drawing from books of the Odyssey and centuries of myths and legends and culture. There is also a lot of flatulence. You don’t need a Bachelor’s in English to enjoy a good fart joke. Read it because there are fart jokes. Read it because there are moments where it is really crazy and moments where it is really beautiful, and you really can’t go the length of a chapter without giggling. Unless you’re writing a dissertation on the book, don’t worry that you don’t get all of the references to Irish folklore or stop because a sentence is too long. It’s a story that shouldn’t be hard to hold.