Everyone recognizes that guy who specializes in fake cerebral-ness. He’s all about the pose. You’ll encounter him at the café on a Sunday afternoon when you’re powering through your hot chocolate, and there he’ll be, sliding his copy of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita ever-closer to the woman seated at his side, as if to say, “Behold, m’lady, do you not vouchsafe me as an impressive reader?” He’s into thickness, but not that type of thickness, you lowly plebeians!
Other books suit his pose-based purposes—War and Peace, some Proust, Don Quixote. Gaddis’s The Recognitions. This is typically a guy thing. The same sort of guy who is reminiscent of that person in your building without a lot happening in their life who becomes the co-op president and turns into this officious little tyrant going around measuring the widths of doormats. They’ll review books online, fancying themselves a one-man tribunal for educated taste, though they have no taste at all, given that most of what they do comes down to affectations. Trying to look smart without being smart. And looking like a deep reader without reading much at all.
Ownership of the book is huge. Being seen with the book out in public is bigger still. The female version of this sort of person is more prone to opt for a tote bag from some literary journal and leave it at that. It’s a guy who prefers the “bask in my mighty tome!” routine. He’s an intellectual cool guy — and it’s his type of attitude that can make other people loath to read books they might love to have read.
When I was in high school, I used to ask for two things for Christmas: CDs and books. I’d rip open the wrapping paper and there would be a Hank Williams box set, say, and a novel I have now loved for a long time, which is frequently touted as a big, scary, impenetrable novel that only the smartest of the smart can read — and even then with assorted skeleton keys and additional books of annotations for help! —and if you are not one of these people, you best abandon all hope before even trying to understand this book!
This would be Ulysses, by James Joyce, which came out 100 years ago, and has been commonly heralded as the Best Novel Ever Written. I feel like I should underline and bold that for effect, or you can just imagine me using my best voice-of-God impression. Citizen Kane had a lengthy stay at the top of the Best Film Ever Made pile, and in rock-and-roll there was Sgt. Pepper, and in jazz, Kind of Blue. F. Scott Fitzgerald, over-awed by what he had read with Ulysses, turned up on Joyce’s lawn, drunk, literally on his knees in tribute, which scared the hell out of Joyce, and made him concerned for Fitzgerald’s well-being.
Fitzgerald could be a fanboy — his need to worship Ernest Hemingway and Hemingway’s one-note style of writing is a blemish on Fitzgerald’s usually sound critical record — but few writers have ever had a better understanding of what makes prose work. Fitzgerald knew that Joyce had done something no one had ever done, and I think he knew it in a way that has become lost to us over time, on account of the mythical way in which the novel is regarded, and those would-be intellectual edge-lords of the coffee house who are always there to tell you that, sure, they’re reading Ulysses for the tenth time, but it takes a special brand of person. This is hogwash, and we should talk about why, and why now is the time to read this novel.
Most people who have heard about Ulysses and haven’t read it are still familiar with the central conceit: a man wanders around Dublin, on a summer day in the early 20th century. The man is Leopold Bloom, the day, which is now celebrated as Bloomsday, was June 16, 1904. He’s far from the only major character, but it is his headspace we come to know best, over the course of the novel’s 265,000 words.
Encountering summaries of the text — or the style of that text — one will find potentially frightening phrases like “stream of consciousness.” Ironically, I think writing of this nature should put us off our stride less than ever before, especially when it’s done by a writer the caliber of Joyce. What is Twitter? Pretty damn stream of consciousness, right? Does anyone ever truly understand anyone else on Twitter? How could you? There’s no grammar, there’s no reason, no logic. It’s usually just mental slop fired out on a screen. But I guess it’s how people think, in the disorderliness of their brains?
Looked at it this way, Ulysses is the ultimate Twitter post, were there no character limitations, but executed with intent and control, which one experiences with ease, if one is willing to trust Joyce — to go with him as he goes with Bloom. One Christmas morning I pulled open a package and there was Ulysses, waiting for me to read it. I saved that experience until the summer, Bloomsday and all. I was 17, and I sat outside the front door of our house, and I did something that seemed pretty basic at the time, but now strikes me as radical advice when it comes to reading this book, and not being scared of reading this book.
To level with you: a lot of people who want to think they’re smart want you to think you’re dumb. It’s power. Yes, it’s also illusion, but that’s often what power is. Getting someone else to believe they’re this amazing thing, and you’re this lowly thing. What I’ve found is that the people who make a great show of reading books like Ulysses often 1. Haven’t read them 2. Don’t want you to read them.
That’s their special place, that intellectual world. But you know what? Ulysses is alive, it radiates with the energy of humanness. It features friends who also have some issues with each other — in other words, they’re true to life as friends —busting out the needle, teasing, taking the piss. It’s pungent and earthy, and protean, with a vibe of the prelapsarian, because, after all, we’re in someone’s head, and the human head and how it works goes back to caveman days.
It’s also fiercely, devotedly urban. If you live in a city in which you think you know every alley, every shortcut, can see a blurry photo on Facebook, and know exactly what block it’s from, then Ulysses is for you. Dublin is every bit the character that Bloom is. The work connects with people who know a place intimately. That place can be your place — it doesn’t have to be Dublin. For me, it’s Boston, and I often feel like I am a version of Leopold Bloom as I walk around the city. It’s erotic, as well. How many sitcoms make jokes about letters to Penthouse Forum? Or they used to, anyway. The ultimate such letter is Molly Bloom’s soliloquy near the end of the novel. Pure Eros. But touching Eros. Connective, moving, beautiful Eros. Erotica to make you cry.
Ulysses is intensely verbal, and we are not in this current age. We’ll default to images — memes, for example — to cover up our lack of word-based acumen. The words we do use tend to be plucked from the same pool. Then we get the stock, repeated phrases: “Now do so and so.” “Tell me you don’t watch football without telling me you don’t watch football.”
Individuality is stripped away. We can hug all we want, but ultimately, humans connect at their most profound levels via language. Take that away and our relationships fracture. Our would-be relationships never come to fruition. We’re cut off. When we’re cut off, we take the approach of pretending all is well on social media. Lies to self. And what adds up in this world like lies to self? And the truism always holds: Pretending that you are something you are not makes the absence of that thing more painful in your life.
Cue self-medication. Cue giving up early. Cue a fake interest in causes in which one has no real investment or good faith belief. The individual is no longer walking, Ulysses-style, but going in circles. But more than a book that is intensely verbal, Ulysses is a novel with a need to reach for that verbal quality of being, because that is our natural state of being.
That’s why Ulysses comes at us from all verbal angles. For a book so often regarded as difficult, it has a devotion to connecting with us, trying every last means of language. Van Gogh wrote his letters this way. He came to a point from the left, the right, the top, the bottom. You knew what he thought, but he wanted to make sure he was covering everything, lest he was wrong and would realize it in the act of communication itself.
This is Leopold Bloom. He’s not so much a pain in the royal Irish arse to “get” as he is human. We think like he does in the associative methodology of our thoughts. But unlike Bloom, we’re increasingly likely to tap out, and to acquiesce to cliché and stock image, in turn becoming a version of cliché and stock image incarnate. The brain is a muscle, the same as language is a skill we must work at. Make sure we drop and give ourselves 20, to put it in push-up terms. Reading functions, the same way. Read, think through what you’ve read, and you get sharper, you think better, you speak better, and you connect more with everything with which there is to connect. Your daughter. Your friend. Nature. That Prince album you haven’t heard in a while. Your dog, for that matter. Birdsong. The predawn black coffee as it first goes under the tongue. Your mistakes. Your aspirations. You.
This book of a single day is really the book of our days. It walks out of that day in 1904, and straight through from the day of its publication in 1922, and into these times. If we’re not hearing it, absorbing the example, it’s not because the clarion sound isn’t clear enough, or isn’t tangible. It’s because we turn away, and there are plenty of reasons to do that, and some of them are provided by a certain set of individuals.
When I read accounts about people reading Ulysses, and this type of intellectual gatekeeper I’m talking about, I think you’re supposed to be frightened. Chased off. Discouraged from so much as cracking the spine. And I am here to say that it’s just not that hard. Someone might counter this statement by saying, “but you’re a writer! You read all the time!” as if I have unreasonable expectations. I saw on Facebook the other day where someone remarked that if more people read Shakespeare, the world would be a much better place. Someone else answered them by saying that if humans could understand Shakespeare, we’d be a different species. In other words, we’re too dumb now.
Are we? What you expose yourself to and partake of is going to shape what you can and can’t do mentally and intellectually. If I go down to the basketball court and shoot 250 free throws a day, I’m going to get better at shooting free throws. The human mind is similar. It’s a muscle. Do the mental version of sitting on a couch all day long and having a Doritos orgy in your mouth and sure, Shakespeare can be tough. But he’s also writing from the Elizabethan period, and Joyce wasn’t. Plus, Joyce was trying to put forth in prose form what all of us are thinking. Or could be thinking. Or how we often think. He’s bringing us in in a different way — in as in internal.
And you know what you can simply do? The big trick to Ulysses? Read it. That’s it. Just read it like you would a menu or a comic book or a Twitter feed. Or a book. A letter. Don’t sweat trying to find deep meanings, or other levels. You’ll get the levels you need. They’ll find you. Let them. Let the sounds wash over you. The sense will come. You don’t have to pick up on everything. Or close to everything. When do we ever? That’s not how life works. Our relationships with our closest intimates. Our parents, our spouse, our children, our best friends. There’s nothing wrong with that, and here’s the book that gets it.
I’m a big believer that there are certain things you should do in this life before you leave it. You should listen to a Beethoven symphony. I gave a talk on the radio about the longest version of the Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star,” from Cleveland in December 1973, which is the length of a Beethoven symphony. The host was not a big live music person, but he dug it, said that he found it hypnotic, and got pulled in. I felt like I had helped give him something or get him to something that someone else had to give him. And that’s a life experience. You’ve had a life experience when you hear those pieces of music, or your read Ulysses. That’s not Netflix, that’s not TikTok, that’s not the same old photos of the same pets on Instagram. This is special. It is, I believe, a large part of why we are here — to have experiences of this nature that can teach us about ourselves, no matter how well we think we know ourselves.
A reader has a rapport with a book, just like people in life have a rapport with each other. A book like Ulysses can pull us in the same way a performance of “Dark Star” might. Think of how you talk to your various friends. The rhythm of that back-and-forth is different with all of them, isn’t it? The tempo, the pauses, the flow. It can take some time to find that rapport, or accept its limitations, understand its strengths.
Over that summer, I found my personal rapport with Ulysses, but what aided me a lot was another trick: read the book aloud. As a rule, read writing aloud. Not always. Some books read themselves aloud in your head. Others have words like notes that are meant to ring out in the open air. Remember that wise teacher who gave you the tip to always read your own writing aloud? Helps, right? For any kind of writing — a proposal at work, a cover letter, your 38-page epic poem. I used to do this all the time, until my own cachet of writerly voices became such an extension of myself that I could hear them as a wrote and also as I read back what I’d written. Read in any voice you like. Pretend you’re David Attenborough. Use an Irish accent for Ulysses. Feel the spirit of the lilt at the end of your tongue.
There are a lot of people in Ulysses I’d like to hang out with. The novel starts with one of them, in Buck Mulligan, who loves himself a good time. He eats a lot, drinks a lot, he’s pretty merry, and always has money, thanks to a well-to-do aunt who keeps him in funds for some reason. He once saved someone from drowning, and studies medicine, but he’s like that guy you knew in college who was pre-med that you can’t imagine in any serious medical situation because he was always humping someone in the disused shower stall given that he couldn’t wait for his roommate to clear out.
Any time I encounter the likes of a Mulligan in the pages of Ulysses, I always have this feeling that I will be seeing him later in the day, that we’ve made plans, and perhaps I should find an excuse to get out of them, but I will probably go nonetheless because Mulligan will have a tale or two that he didn’t have last time. A book has to be awfully alive to function that way. And awfully inclusive. For everyone.
For a further, supportive nudge, try the 1982 audio version of Ulysses — you’ll be able to locate it for free on the internet — made by Irish state radio. Thirty-three actors getting their Joyce on and covering the whole shebang in 30 hours. So, you don’t even have to use your eyes, if you don’t want to.
I was going to the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston once, in various back hallways of which I’ve sat from time to time reading Ulysses, and as I approached the building — on a long urban walk of my own in another old city of Irish aspect —I heard a mother addressing her pouty child. It was a young boy, and apparently, he didn’t feel like going anywhere else that day. A metaphor for life, in my view, or life as so many people now elect to live it.
And his mom said, “Never miss out on something because you weren’t willing to walk a little further.”
I think the spirit of that advice serves us all well in any worthwhile endeavor, any relationships, with us and others, us and ourselves, and us with the inter-connective coin of the realm, which is language, whether we like it or not. And it certainly serves us well with James Joyce’s Ulysses. Take a walk. Have an experience. Don’t be deterred by lit bros, or anyone or anything that might keep you from a life experience, or your very self. Nor the preponderance of clichés, and the linguistic begging out that is so prevalent right now. It doesn’t help anyone, and it doesn’t help you. It doesn’t help me and you, if we are ever to try and connect. But Ulysses can. Even just a dip in its pages. A restorative reminder that you have your words, and in your words, you have wonder, and in wonder we have ourselves, and we have anything important that might be possible with someone else. So, when you sidle up to Leopold Bloom outside a Dublin alehouse, say hello for me. He’ll know what’s up. Walking words, words for walking. •