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Jest vs Joyce, Cont'd

by Conor Friedersdorf

Eamon writes:

I couldn't get into Ulysses either, the first time I tried to read it, in my early 20s. I forced myself to slog through the first 100 pages, then gave up. I tried again in my mid 30s and it blew my mind -- one of the two or three most transformative, moving encounters with art I've ever experienced. And incredibly enjoyable. I really believe that I had to read about 5,000 other books, and live through the 12,000 or so days that I had lived by then, before I was ready for Ulysses. The mileage of others may vary.

A couple of keys to it, from my experience: First, I read it slowly -- three, four, five pages a day. Took me several months. And I physically read each sentence slower than I typically read. It's dense. It can't perform its magic if you're skimming over it. For anyone who wants to create stuff that moves people (art, literature, music, whatever) Ulysses is a lodestar of total commitment. Its creator agonized over every sentence. You get the overwhelming sense that Joyce never said to himself, "Fuck it, that's just going to have to be good enough." The monumental self-discipline and determination that takes is staggering, I think, to anyone who has ever tried to create something really good. (Which is not the same thing as saying that everything he tries in that book works. Some of what he tried fails but never because he took the easy way out.) The other thing I love about Ulysses is its total respect for your intelligence -- Joyce doesn't make things easy for you if doing so would diminish what he's trying to achieve; he grants you the respect that you're smart enough to get it. I love that.

Secondly, and somewhat in tension with what I just said, I didn't fret about what I didn't understand. I just kept going.

Third -- and this is crucial -- it's a joyful novel. Easily the funniest novel I've ever read but also filled with sheer beauty just for its own sake, in image but especially in language. Nobody loved the sound, taste, and feel of English more than that guy. It's not meant to test your resolve; it's meant to give pleasure, and it does, enormously, when you meet it at the right time.

I hope you pick it up again at some point and give it another look. I can't emphasize enough how happy I am that I did.