Top 10 Books of 2010: #7

Ulysses

#7: ULYSSES, James Joyce

For the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking back through the books I read in 2010 and ranking my favorites in a top 10 list. Today… (cue Jaws music) meet number 7: The Greatest Novel of All Time, Apparently, James Joyce’s Ulysses.

I know, I know. Of all the books I read this year Ulysses only got ranked number 7. Number 7!? This is mainly because I’m not nearly smart enough to understand it. And because I’m not Irish or Catholic and have perilously little memory of The Odyssey and all the Latin I learned in middle school. But I did read it. I think the better verb phrase there is “labor through it,” but it was remarkable, as everyone says it is.

I am not going to presume to give you an intelligent review of this behemoth of literature. Rather, I am going to give you a list: a brief collection of thoughts on the least “brief” novel probably ever written. So, here we go.

EDITION I READ: A beautiful hardback Modern Library edition, which I just happened to find for a mere $10 at The Bookstore on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. Naturally, I haven’t read Ulysses in another edition, but I loved this one. The margins are wide and the references are complete and easy to find. Recommended.

ESSENTIAL COMPANION: Unless you happen to be a modernist scholar, or a true Catholic Dubliner fluent in Latin and Greek mythology, I’m going to presume to say that you might need a little help with the allusions. I certainly did. Which is why I absolutely relied on this marvelous book, Allusions in Ulysses (which, I’d like to note, was published by UNC Press, where I enjoyed a year as an intern). It is a perfect and clear line-by-line guide to the entire novel and it saved me lots of frustration along the way. I feel that Joyce, like his difficult modernist counterparts, is more deeply and fully enjoyed if you actually understand what he’s saying. Weldon Thornton’s Allusions in Ulysses will help you do just that.

FAVORITE CHAPTER: Part II, episode 4, Calypso. We first meet Leopold Bloom as he makes breakfast for his wife, Molly, while she languishes in bed. It’s a funny, domestic chapter, and yet very sexy, too.

READING ALOUD: I highly recommend reading difficult portions of the novel out loud. If you can find a place where this will not cause you undue awkwardness, by all means, read this book to yourself. I can guarantee that your comprehension will be aided tremendously. I know mine was. I recall reading it aloud to myself and Guion as we drove to Southern Pines for a party, and I can still remember what I read because it was that much easier to understand.

MOLLY’S SOLILOQUY. Insulted that I keep talking about strategies for comprehension? OK. Fine. Just take a gander at the famous, oft-quoted Molly’s Soliloquy from the novel, written in its entirety here. Got all that? Good.

WORKSHOPPING ULYSSES. I think I used this in a Snax post, but I’m going to use it again because it’s hilarious: A McSweeney’s writer imagines the comments that James Joyce would have received from his imagined MFA workshop. Especially hilarious once you’ve actually read it, but still, worth it.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT, AND WHY I’LL READ IT AGAIN: I think reading Ulysses extends beyond the “shoulds” that are tossed out by the literary elite and our diligent English professors. I think we read it because Joyce changed the landscape of the novel forever with this book. He started a conversation that is still happening today: What is a novel? Why do novels matter? And do they still matter? For those reasons, I’m looking forward to returning to Ulysses in a few years.

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