100 Greatest Novels: Ulysses

I finished reading Ulysses over the weekend. And I fell in love with the novel. Everybody might not be familiar with Ulysses so let me first tell you what the novel is and what reading it entails and then I’ll explain why I loved it and why you should read it too.

Ulysses is a novel by the Irish author James Joyce. It was published in its entirety in 1922. The novel follows Leopold Bloom, Stephen Dedalus, and lesser named and unnamed characters around Dublin in a 24 hour period. But that’s not what’s important. What makes this book special is Joyce’s complete mastery, complete mockery, and complete disregard of the English language. Dr. Joseph Collins explains that the novel is written “not in straightforward, narrative fashion…but in parodies of classic prose and current slang, in perversions of sacred literature, in carefully metered prose with studied incoherence, in symbols so occult and mystic that only the initiated and profoundly versed can understand — in short, by means of every trick and illusion that a master artificer, or even magician, can play with the English language.”

There are many reasons why I fell in love with Ulysses. First, it was just so much fun to read. I never knew what every chapter (and even page turn) would have in store for me. At any time, the book could change writing styles (stream of conscious to play script to romance novel…), points of view between characters, and locations. Another reason is Joyce’s honest and unfiltered depiction of what goes through a person’s head in a normal day. Every vulgar idea, every mundane action, and every reminiscent of the past (whether the readers understands or not) is portrayed incredibly accurately. Song lyrics, quotes from past reads and past conversations, and memories from childhood pop up as unexpectedly as they do for you and me. It’s revolting. It’s damned confusing. And it’s beautiful.

Interested in reading Ulysses? Here’s some tips:
-Don’t read any articles or any books to prepare yourself. I made this mistake the first time I attempted reading the novel and it freaked me out. I was overwhelmed with looking for certain allusions and trying to make connections to Homer’s Odyssey.
-If you’re not enjoying a passage, a writing style, or a chapter…SKIP IT! There’s no part that’s so important to the narration that you cannot skip. Here’s the story line if you don’t want to get lost: Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom roam around Dublin separately, they meet, roam around together, end up at Bloom’s house, Stephen leaves, and Bloom goes to bed.
-Don’t expect to understand every line or even every paragraph. There’s one episode that has Bloom near music and the first half of the chapter is more about how musical the phrases sound than any understandable storyline.
-If you feel like you must have some guideline while reading, Wikipedia’s synopsis of each episode is helpful without giving too much away.
-Enjoy reading it. This is a surprising book and at times a hilarious book. Have fun with it.

This is the first post in my series of blogs about reading through the Modern Library’s 100 Greatest Novels

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