Tips for Reading James Joyce's Ulysses For the First Time

I read a lot. According to a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center, each year I read 4 to 5 times more print books than the average US citizen. And I am no stranger to critical reading. My MA is in History, so I have a lot of experience peeling through layers of nuanced arguments and obscure references. My college entrance exam received a perfect score on the reading subsection, and to this day I make an effort to sprinkle "difficult" books in among my entertainment reading on a regular basis. So when I recently picked up Ulysses, I felt prepared to handle most of what Joyce could throw at me.

So what in the hell is an "agenbite of inwit"?

And how am I supposed to get the joke in "Descende, calve, ut ne nimium decalveris" if I'm neither fluent in Latin or Catholic dogma?

James Joyce's novel Ulysses is one of the most allusive works of literature in the Western canon. Ever since its publication in 1922, its encyclopaedic nature and voluminous display of erudition have proved stumbling blocks for many readers. All too often the reader's initial enthusiasm for the book is whittled away at the expense of a growing sense of bewilderment, as a mass of unexplained references and quotations piles up. Bewilderment inevitably gives rise to frustration, and this frustration provides the reader with an excuse to give up.

-- From the introduction to the Wikibooks Annotations to James Joyce's Ulysses, retrieved from 9/3/2013.
In my recent adventures in reading Ulysses, I've been using some of the following tips which might prove useful for other first-time readers:
  1. Relax - Ulysses suffers from almost a century of discussion and analysis. As a result, new readers will find it difficult to approach the book without a number of preconceptions. They will have heard that it is one of the most difficult books in the English language (wrong, try Finnegans Wake) or one of the greatest (or maybe both at the same time). Forget all that. Relax, acknowledge that it will be almost impossible to catch every reference, joke, or turn of phrase on the first read through, and just enjoy the ride.

  2. Take notes - On the first read through, it will not take long for a reader to encounter an unfamiliar word or phrase. Joyce utilizes Latin, Greek, Danish, German, Spanish, French, and several variations of Anglo-Irish dialects and idioms, all in the first 100 pages. Instead of stopping constantly to look up words or phrases, keep a small notebook while reading Ulysses and quickly jot down a page number and word or phrase for later review. Stopping at all breaks the flow of the narrative and is counterintuitive to Joyce's approach, but this is a workable compromise over stepping away from the story entirely to constantly follow rabbits down rabbit holes. Remember, this probably will not be the only read through, so think of it as laying the groundwork for the next experience.

  3. Do a little background reading - After finishing a section, look up the notes while the reading is still fresh. Several resources exist on the Internet, including the Wikibooks annotations noted above, and several volumes have been written as dedicated guides to Ulysses. One of these, Frank Budgen's James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses has been recommended as contemporary and informative by riverrun. Another quick resource that can be helpful is to review the Wikipedia (or Everything2, where available) pages for generic topics such as Dublin, Ireland, etc.

  4. Understand Joyce's approach to internal dialogue - Joyce's use of what has been called "stream of consciousness" can be difficult to follow as he attempts to portray the myriad thoughts and fancies pouring through each character's mind as the day progresses. While the book opens with a young, seemingly conflicted Stephen Dedalus, Joyce soon changes to the internal voice of Leopold Bloom. It is important to remember that each of their thought processes reflects their age and station and outlook. At times, when a group of characters is together, the point of view shifts erratically (for example, during the walk to the funeral) but this occurs infrequently.
Maybe Joyce isn't for you. I tried him early, and struggled greatly, but two decades later I have been convinced to try again, and I am so glad that I did. So give Ulysses a shot (don't start with Finnegans Wake!) and hopefully these tips will help you enjoy it as much as I have.

And if you were wondering, an "agenbite of inwit" (or more correctly Ayenbite of Inwyt) is from a Kentish dialect of Middle English, and means literally "the again-biting of inner wit". Or in language a little more modern, a prick of remorse.

Adventures in Reading Ulysses

Previous - I sip the strong draught, and come unbound

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