Do you celebrate Bloomsday on June 16?
June 16, 1904, is the day on which Leopold Bloom – hence Bloomsday – walks around Dublin in James Joyce’s Ulysses.
(If you have already read Ulysses and already celebrate, you may enjoy my tips and tricks for drinking in Ulysses.)
The history of this post, which will attempt to convince you to read Ulysses, goes back more than a decade:
I ended up, by accident, at a Bloomsday festival at Mike & Molly’s beergarden in Champaign where people who apparently had read Ulysses and appeared to like it were taking turns reading it from a stage. The book’s language was tedious, and I honestly remember joking to my friend (a detail I left out of the intro to my thesis defense), “Well…I never need to read that book.”
Yet, more than a decade later, I am one of those people who have read Ulysses, and, furthermore, I celebrate it on the day it is set in 1904 Dublin. I understand this development deserves an explanation, so please allow me to attempt one.
Following that day at Mike & Molly’s, the famed detail of the book kept haunting me (in large part from turning up in my Writer’s Almanac every June 16) and eventually led me to request independent study on this book during my Master’s work. I ended up loving this book not because it was fun to read (it is not!) but because I have an appreciation for the pure immensity of the work. Here’s why:
Joyce depicted Bloom’s trek around the city in such detail to “give a picture of Dublin so complete and accurate that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.” The fact that a companion book with 600 pages of annotations (and I skipped a good portion of these) exists gives some insight to the level of historical references he makes.
The chapters read in various styles. One chapter is written as newspaper headlines and stories; another is stream of consciousness; another is narrated by a nameless barfly; another is formatted as questions and answers; and the final chapter is a monologue of eight long unpunctuated sentences. Each chapter has a distinct personality; there are some chapters I love and some I hate, and I imagine most readers feel the same.
This characteristic builds on the others. Due to so many topics and so many styles, this book is truly about everything, and one could connect an interest to almost any topic. I gravitated towards the pub scenes, probably because, well, I like pubs.
I am not going to quote from this book because I don’t want to scare you further. However, on the topic of pubs, I will subject you to one defining line of my Master’s thesis:
“In Ulysses, the circulation of kegs through Dublin on the River Liffey, the pouring of beer through spouts in the pubs, and the movement of drinkers in and out of various pubs in Dublin reinforce the notion of a fluid national identity moving towards the inclusion of a moderate outsider like Bloom.”
Ulysses is truly a work of genius I have not yet seen equaled, and I never expect to. Does this mean it was the most enjoyable book I’ve ever read? Absolutely not. Would I recommend you read it? Hmmm…That depends.
Why am I writing this post then? Maybe so that when you see it ranked time and time again at the top of the best novels of the English language, you have an understanding of why it deserves to be there. And who doesn’t appreciate another reason to celebrate on a summer day in June?
If you are so inclined to give Ulysses a try, here is the version I recommend: Ulysses (Gabler Edition) 1st (first) edition Text Only
Joyce, James. Ulysses. Ed. Hans Walter Gabler. New York: Random House, 1986.