For more than a quarter century, Joyce's Ulysses has been at or near the top of my literary bucket list.
I gave it a half-hearted shot during a hitchhike across Ireland during my twenties. Inspired by seeing the Martello Tower -- the outside of it, at least; the Joyce Museum was closed -- I managed about five or six pages. The tome mostly served to add extra weight to the backpack.
Over the 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 I've been able to keep (and sometimes exceed). So far, it's lived up to its reputation for being worth the trouble: it has the linguistic virtuosity that I love in Shakespeare, and the eye for human ridiculousness that I love in Monty Python. It's by turns earthy, cerebral, satirical and compassionate; high points for me include the "Hades" episode, which details Leopold Bloom's journey to the funeral of one Paddy Dingnam, and the "Wandering Rocks" episode, a tour-de-force involving multiple points of view.
And yes, it's difficult -- although it presents varying kinds of difficulty. Often it's a matter of Joyce's methodology; he ditches a lot of conventional narrative glue in favor of jump-cuts, sudden shifts between interior monologue and exterior happening, free-associating banter among the characters, and so on. This requires more attention of me as a reader. In return for that closer attention, there's a sense of immediacy and direct access to the characters' experience of the world.
Another kind of difficulty in Ulysses arises from references and allusions, of which there are many -- particularly in the episodes centered on Stephen Dedalus, Joyce's fictional alter ego. 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 follows Stephen's trains of thought as he walks along Sandymount Strand. It's one philosophical, literary, cultural or political allusion after another, and making any sense out of the episode depends on understanding these allusions. 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 Ulysses has often involved alternating between a bulky, printed book and a considerably lighter electronic device that serves as a dictionary/encyclopedia/study guide. Thanks to mobile technology, I now know that Mananaan is the Irish god of the sea, and that some accounts have the Virgin Mary claiming she was impregnated by a pigeon.
Google's also a help in navigating the novel's vocabulary, which includes numerous visitors from the hinterlands of English. 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.
Sometimes I get the sense that Joyce had in mind an ideal reader, one who understands Irish history, Catholic theology, Greek and Gaelic mythologies, and the landmarks of Dublin well enough to get all the references. With Google at hand, I can be that reader.