A beginner’s guide to a first reading of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’

There is a pithy old joke, told again and again, perhaps most famously by Woody Allen at the beginning of his film Manhattan, that summarises my view of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It goes something like this: two women walk into a restaurant. One says – the food was terrible; to which the other replies – yeah, and such small portions, too.

Well, following Allen’s gag: Ulyssses is both difficult and, at over 900 pages in my edition, there’s a lot of it.

So, how do you approach reading it for the first time? That phrase ‘first time’ is deliberate because I think it’s likely that it will need more than one reading. I hope, because I think it merits it, that you’ll want to do that – I do, having just finished it. Here was my approach, along with one or two ideas, on how you might undertake a reading of Ulysses. I chose 11 points of guidance because it seemed to follow Ulysses’ perverse and contrary spirit. I hope you find them all useful.

1. Ulysses is a work of art to be enjoyed, not an obstacle to be overcome. I say this because it’s not always how I felt. I had to remind myself that in the most difficult and obtuse passages, I was reading this to be enlightened, moved, amazed, awed. If you can keep this in mind, it will help motivate you and keep your mind open its delights.

2. You’ll need other books to help you. Ideally, you should have read Homer’s Odyssey (and remember it). In my view – and this is not shared by others – you’ll also need a commentary. I used Harry Blamires book, which is a line-by-line discussion, written in continuous, clear and concise prose.

I would also strongly recommend reading T.S. Eliot’s poem, ‘The Waste Land’, along with notes that explain it. This gives an idea of the flavour of the much grander enterprise of reading Ulysses: both are Modernist masterpieces, so you’ll learn something about context; both are difficult and display a variety of style and allusions; both will introduce you to the idea of reading a primary text (the poem and novel), alongside notes on it.

3. You’ll need lots of structured time. As I’ve said, the novel runs in at over 900 pages in my Penguin edition. I read much of the novel in very small chunks, around 20-30 pages at a time. If I had more time, or the inclination, I would read more. For every sitting I would read the Blamires’ commentary, too, so it’s quite an undertaking. Moreover, I would recommend structuring your time a little: say, devote the next month to reading 20 or so pages per day.

4. Embrace the idea of a second reading. In a sense, this is a cop-out. It means those thorny issues can be postponed until the next time. But it also means that you won’t get so demotivated by the difficulty because you know you can return to it later.

5. Read with a pencil in your hand. This is another way of saying ‘be an active reader’. Make notes on things you need to look up. But – importantly – not too many. You might need to leave some things alone for now. Since Ulysses condenses deep reflection on the most mysterious and sophisticated questions of life, you can’t expect to cover it all. Just note those things that will aide your reading or take your interest.

6. If you’re not confused, you haven’t ‘got’ it. Get used to the idea that not all of Ulysses’ ‘problems’ will be solved in either one or several readings. The reading is extremely difficult in some sections and sometimes you’ll wonder why you’re reading it all. Some of the problems of the novel will remain mysteries. That’s ok.

7. Absorb and believe that reading Ulysses is unlike anything you’ve read before. When reading, as with many things, we often use our past experiences to get to grips with a new idea or format. This is unlikely to be the case with Ulysses. It’s not quite like anything else, which is one of the reasons it’s so highly praised. Reading ‘The Waste Land’ (see Point 2, above) will help in at least introducing the process of reading.

8. If you can’t get past a difficult part, skim read it and read the commentary… But don’t read the commentary instead of reading the novel. Although everything in me says this is bad advice, if it’s the difference between giving up and going on, then read what you can, how you can and the commentary be your guiding light. For example, Part 1, Episode Three (‘Proteus’) appears early in the novel [note that your version may not be divided into these named sections – Blamires and others do so, however]. It’s a notoriously difficult read and had me completely puzzled and demotivated. So, I read it, absorbed what I could without becoming anxious about the finer points of interpretation, I read the commentary – then moved on. I think many people stop here, when the novel really becomes difficult. Don’t be one of them.

9. Preview your reading by learning more before you start. I knew quite a bit about Ulysses already and it had coloured my reading. I have done this for other books and it has worked well. Since Ulysses is not plotted in the conventional sense – that is, you’re unlikely to find most satisfaction in how it resolves itself at the end – then I think it’s fine to learn more about it. It’s the telling, not the tale (on the whole), so previewing the structure and learning more about it online might help ‘position’ it as you read. The wikipedia entry is useful in this respect, offering short summaries of the sections.

10. Augment your reading with an unabridged audiobook. There are unabridged versions and so you’ll get the full text. Perhaps these are most useful when supplementing your own reading of the text, for which there is no replacement in my view. Perhaps listening to a difficult section again, in the car on the way to work, might help.

11. Don’t give up! Reading Ulysses is probably one of the most difficult enterprises we can start when reading. But the rewards are immense. Other books will seem easy, you’ll be more popular with your friends and you’ll find life’s slings and arrows bounce off you harmlessly. Well, not quite. But you will have achieved something that many claim and far fewer actually have and what’s more – you will have engaged with a work every bit as good as people say it is.

Good luck with your reading and do share your thoughts and experiences here below.

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4 thoughts on “A beginner’s guide to a first reading of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’

  1. Pingback: A beginner's guide to a first reading of James Joyce's 'Ulysses … | A Beginner's Guide To

  2. I’ve got it on a bookshelf at home, sitting there mocking my intellectual limitations. Accusing me of failure, since I tried it two or three times, many years ago, and gave up.

    Maybe I’ll try again, motivated by your ‘guide’.

    • Funny you mention your bookshelf – it was a happy moment when I slide the novel and guide back onto the bookshelf, safe until the next reading. Thanks for your comment – I hope you find the guide useful.

  3. A nice set of suggestions, Phil. I think you’re right that it’s critical to find a way to maintain motivation long enough to reach the book’s often elusive pleasures. The most useful strategies will differ depending on one’s familiarity and comfort with modernist prose. As someone fairly well versed in modernism, I fought some boredom working through the continuous wordplay, recognizing Joyce’s bravado (at the time so daring) as ground that would be revisited ad tedium over the next few generations.

    I most heartily agree with the recommendation to supplement with audio book, or perhaps even substitute audio book for the primary print experience on difficult passages. HEARING Joyce is a distinct aesthetic pleasure, and indeed opens up a productive aesthetic connection to the orality of the novel’s Homeric inspiration. I remember there was much discussion about 15 years ago when an Abbey Theater production of Godot was touring. Many who had written off Beckett as difficult came to realize that he was indeed an Irish poet, and his works actually become more accessible (not easier necessarily, but more luminous) when heard in the appropriate music and cadences of Irish dialect.

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