For more than a quarter century, Joyce's Ulysses has been at or near the top of my Books to Read Someday list.
I gave it a half-hearted shot during a hitchhike across Ireland during my twenties. Intrigued by the Martello Tower, I managed about five or six pages; mostly, the tome served to add extra weight to the backpack.
Last couple years, I've felt that maybe I'm now focused enough to succeed where my younger self failed. (My younger self was more interested in crawling Irish pubs). Also, my brother-in-law read it and has spoken to me on several occasions of his love for this book. And he isn't even a current or former English major. I have a graduate degree in English but have not read Ulysses, one of the defining literary works of the modern era. There's less Someday available than there used to be. It's time.
In late May, I bought a copy of the Vintage paperback edition and set a goal of 10 pages a day, which so far I've been able to keep (and sometimes exceed). Now I'm about 250 pages in. Here's my take so far.
How difficult is it, really?
The difficulty level varies considerably from episode to episode. If someone were to conduct a survey of readers who gave up on Ulysses, I wouldn't be surprised if the majority said they threw in the towel somewhere around page 36 or 37. This is the "Proteus" episode, which records the internal thoughts of Stephen Dedalus as he walks along Sandymount Strand. It's one philosophical, literary or cultural allusion after another, and it's nigh impossible to follow his train of thought without understanding the references. And without being a Jesuit-educated, early 20th century Irish intellectual, that's not so likely.
Luckily, we have Google. And not only do we have Google, we have browser-equipped smartphones. For me, then, the experience of reading this section consisted of alternating between a bulky, printed book and a considerably lighter electronic device that served as a dictionary/encyclopedia/study guide.
Other sections are less daunting; they mostly require attentiveness, as Joyce ditched a lot of traditional narrative scaffolding in favor of jump-cuts, sudden shifts between interior monologue and exterior happening, free-associating banter among the characters, and so on.
Worth the effort?
At this point, 250 pages in, I would definitely say yes. The book is exciting in the way that I find Shakespeare exciting -- there's a similar linguistic virtuosity. It moves effortlessly between the serious and the Pythonesque; there's more comedy in Ulysses than one might expect from a modernist literary landmark with a formidable reputation.
Favorite moments so far?
Just about anything with Leopold Bloom in it. I was particularly taken with the "Hades" episode, which follows Bloom and companions as they ride to a funeral. Tragedy, farce, profound, mundane: many gamuts are spanned.
In the ninth section, "Scylla and Charybdis", young Stephen Dedalus (Joyce's alter ego) tries to impress several literary eminences of the time, and fails. They are dismissive of his theorizing and snub him by conferring about an event to which he is not invited. There's a nice irony in that Joyce is now much better known than any of these figures. And I learned some things I didn't know before about Hamlet.
You'd like this book if you like...
Scrabble. A vocabulary booster if ever there was one. Do you own a gamp? Are those birds over there rufous? How does one learn to walk in chopines? Not knowing these words makes me feel like a bosthoon.
Puns and wordplay, dialogue, Dublin, character portraits, Irish literary history, exploration of the human condition, solving puzzles, looking up stuff.