Questions About Reading Ulysses

(1) Should I read Ulysses?

Of course.  Everyone should.

(2) But isn't it really just for college students and people who, like, study literature?


(3) Could you be a little more forthcoming with that last answer?

I could, but I won't.  It's clear enough.  Reading Ulysses is for every reader.

(4) So are you saying I should be able to understand Ulysses?

No, silly person.  Why would you prefer understanding it to enjoying it?  It's a pretty certain bet that even the person who composed it didn't really understand it either at the time and especially not after a few years.  No artist really understands his or her own work, but if they do the job right, everyone, including the artist can thoroughly enjoy it.

(5) Are you saying that I can enjoy it without understanding it?

Obviously if you're in an absolute complete muddle, you'll be miserable reading it.  But you've got to get that English teacher out of your head who is pushing, pushing, pushing you to read every symbol, deconstruct every sign, dive into the "text" and explore its subterranean structures.  Why?  Is that how you pick up a novel you would read today?  Joyce wanted to challenge his readers, certainly he wanted to baffle them, and probably he was being more than a little bit of a show-off so he could lord it over his readers, if only a little.  But the reality is that Joyce wanted you to laugh with him and to listen with him and to even at times sorrow (if not outright cry) with him and his children.  So, you probably won't understand every word of it--some of it may be a long hard haul.  But ultimately if you read it as a novel is meant to be read you can enjoy it without understanding everything about it.

(6) But isn't Ulysses really meant only for a very high-brow audience?

As noted in a previous post, Virginia Woolf found in it a very, very "underbred" novel.  How could such an "underbred and illiterate" novel be meant only for the creme de la creme?  Ulysses is meant for whoever picks it up meaning to read it through and to chat for a while with the author and his characters.  Don't let the nonsense that the critical world feeds to us disuade you from the very useful, very practical, wonderful, and powerful experience of enjoying Ulysses just as Joyce meant for you to and just as you are capable.

(7) Okay, so you've convinced me.  How do I read Ulysses?

With your eyes.  And take your time--as much time as required.  It isn't a race, you don't need to finish it in the time it would take you to conquer the latest John Grisham or Preston and Cloud.  You need to give it time to breathe--and yourself.  You need to give yourself time to absorb what you've read.  It's not a competition, it's a journey and one well worth taking.  And now, for the concluding diatribe:

Ulysses is not a puzzle to be solved, a mountain to be climbed, an impossible dream to be dreamt, a country to be conquered, or anything other than the unique and wonderful invention of its artist/father meant to be shared with an audience willing to bear with him through all of this long, hot (I suppose for Ireland) Dublin day in 1904.  As Burgess tells us so clearly--Re-Joyce!  To which I would add Readjoyce!


  1. Today I ordered my second set of training wheels, "The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man". I will get to Ulysses, but I'm going to enjoy the journey in the slow lane.

  2. Dear Bea,

    And THAT is the subject of another post entirely, should I ever get to it. Not, of course, the particulars, but the idea of how one approaches a daunting book.

    But do enjoy Portrait on it own. It is the runway to a pleasant take-off.




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