Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Ulysses and Me: Then and Now

When I was a sophomore in college, I registered for an Irish Literature course.  I had a few different reasons for wanting to take the class, but one of the biggest was that Ulysses by James Joyce was on the syllabus. I didn't know very much about Joyce's work, but my dad had often quoted lines from Ulysses to me, and I was fascinated by Bloomsday, the yearly celebration of Ulysses held on June 16, the date on which the book is set. Though I had struggled with my classes up to that point, failing to comprehend the reading and finding classroom discussions completely overwhelming, when it came to Ulysses,  I was determined to put in the effort to be able to appreciate the book because I had this personal interest in it.  

Every evening during the week I was working on my paper about Ulysses, I sat in a dull white study carrel in the basement of the college library, poring over the book and piecing together an argument on the theme of  Leopold Bloom and "seeing ourselves as others see us." I felt really invested in the assignment, and it seemed to me that I was doing a good job. I didn't expect an A - I received only a handful of those my entire college career - but when I turned it in, I thought it was my best college-level work to date. 

Unfortunately, when the paper was returned to me in class, it became clear this was not the case. There were very few comments overall, but a note on the front page summed up what my professor had thought: "This is largely based upon a misreading." Maybe if I hadn't spent all of my free time on this book for a week, I could have let that comment roll off of me, but doing that amount of work and finding that it made no difference at all to the way my paper was received was so disheartening that I took it very personally. The papers I had written for other classes, using half the effort and without reading the book, had been better-received than this one that I cared about and therefore slaved over.  The result was that, for the remaining 5 semesters of my college career, I never read another assigned book. I wrote papers without doing the reading and all of them received better feedback than my analysis of Ulysses. 

At the time, my reaction was to wonder, "How would anyone know if they misread Ulysses or not?" But knowing how well-respected my professor is in the field of Irish literature, over time I had to accept that if anyone would know, it would be him. So from that I concluded that the problem was me. Classics were too  hard for me, I probably wouldn't read them correctly if I tried, and therefore there was no reason to read them at all. This conclusion, combined with some other disappointing feedback from members of the English department's creative writing faculty, probably played some part in my pursuing a career as a children's librarian. It ended up being a wonderful line of work for me, but my attraction to it was definitely connected to the fact that it would make it very easy to justify reading only children's and YA books.  

During my years working in the library I occasionally read a mystery novel or a Fannie Flagg book or something else that wasn't that demanding, but I almost never picked up a serious adult novel, and I claimed this was because there just wasn't time to keep up professionally and read grown-up books for fun. Really, though, it was partly because I assumed adult books were still beyond me. I read hundreds - and sometimes over a thousand - children's books per year  - but I wouldn't touch a classic with a ten-foot pole. 

I left the library world in 2013 when I became a mom, and for a few years, I kept on with reading books for kids, thinking I would stay active in the field through blogging about children's literature. But after I had my third child, I started realizing that being with kids all day and only reading kids' books didn't leave much room for variety in my life. Slowly, but surely, the tide of my reading life began to turn. 

First, I joined a Catholic moms book club. We primarily read spiritual works, but slowly started sneaking in some classics as well. Given that this wasn't an academic environment and I wouldn't have to write a paper, I started reading the books. I never had anything particularly astute to say about them (and I still don't), but the difference was that now no one cared. I was free to find whatever meaning I could in the books, and to not worry about whether I missed something.  

Next, I started listening to What Should I Read Next, and doing more classics-oriented read-alongs on Instagram, including "2020 Classics," the goal of which was to read 20 classics between mid-2019 and the end of 2020.  With the pressure off and the expectations low, I was suddenly reading adult books with the same hunger I had previously devoured books for kids. I didn't love everything (Pride and Prejudice was not for me), but I found myself willingly reading things that I had avoided like the plague after my experience with Ulysses. I managed to read Middlemarch, Kristin Lavransdatter, Jane Eyre, Adam Bede, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and other books I had previously dismissed. 

Then, I joined a read-along on Instagram for Crime and Punishment. As we were all introducing ourselves, someone in the group mentioned Ulysses. I told a brief version of my story with this book, and the next thing I knew, there was a read-along being organized for Ulysses and I was part of the group.

I jokingly told people that I wanted to revisit Ulysses to purge the demons I still associate with my English degree, and that was partly true. But more than that, I was curious. Would I misread the book again? Or would I find it easier and more comprehensible after reading all these other classics? The read-along group fell apart almost instantly, but armed with paperback and library audiobook, I decided I would read and/or listen to every word of the book, even if it took months.

I began reading on Bloomsday this year, June 16. I started out listening to the audiobook at normal speed and following along in the book. I did 15-20 minutes per day, and kept to the read-along schedule for the first month or two. Then I took several long breaks from reading it, interspersed with days where I would read just a page or two or speed up the audiobook to 2x and get through a bit of it. In the first quarter of the book, I highlighted quotes and reveled in references to Irish music and the Catholic faith that were familiar to me. I let the language wash over me like poetry and it did start to make a kind of sense. 

As the book went on, though, it became clear that it was not for the faint of heart. Ulysses is a book that changes genre, tense, point of view, and format without warning. There are allusions upon allusions to Irish culture, politics, history, literature, and art, along with sexual content, religious imagery, quotations from poetry, and many other things I know I didn't even recognize. I had obviously been wrong to ever think I hadn't misread this book, as I most obviously had, but now I started entertaining a new question: Was it fair to think an undergraduate was going to do anything other than misread it?  

The last quarter of the book became such a slog that I cranked the audiobook up to 3x speed and just zipped through it as best I could. There was a play and a chapter written as a weird kind of Q and A. The final chapter contained no punctuation at all and had frank sexual talk that I would typically avoid. Reaching the end brought more relief than pride. But it left me with an answer to my question.  

Could a college student ever do anything other than misread Ulysses? Honestly, I don't think so. 

To truly appreciate Ulysses, you either have to have the exact same knowledge of all the topics James Joyce studied and knew well, or you have to spend your life acquiring said knowledge and then applying it appropriately to the text. Perhaps progress could be made over a four-year period, but in a semester-long course for sophomores? No, there is no way, even if I had spent every waking moment of my life in the library with that book, that I could have gotten more out of it. I have no idea what the comments on my classmates' papers were like, but I suspect that if they read the book "correctly," it was either an accident, or they did a lot of research of other people's arguments and commented upon those. (We were always expressly told not to do this, and therefore I thought it was cheating, but looking back there is zero chance that everyone but me completely understood this book. They definitely read up on it. My refusing to do so is an example of what my late father always called "letting school interfere with your education.")

I will probably never stop being disappointed that my career as an English major caused such a terrible setback in my reading life, but 16 years post-graduation, having conquered this book for the final time, it no longer feels that significant. If I had it to do over, I would probably have chosen a state school and saved my money, and I definitely would not have majored in English, but even so, I got here in the end, and that's the most important thing. I think I will keep my copy of Ulysses for now, as a souvenir of sorts, but if it ever gets read again, it won't be by me. 

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