Have you ever been afraid to read a book?
Since the fall of 2010, I have wanted to read Ulysses, by James Joyce. It began with one of my AP Lit students, one of those kids who was fun to teach because he was way smarter than I was. A self-proclaimed science nerd (he’s now in medical school), he nevertheless fell in love with great literature in my class. I wish I could take credit for it, but all I had to do was put Steinbeck and Tolstoy and Bronte into his hands and he was hooked.
He started reading voraciously outside of class, and he wanted to talk with me about his reading. We had excellent conversations about Faulkner and Woolf, and then one day he came to my classroom, eyes shining, map of Dublin in hand (not kidding), wanting to discuss Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.
“I’m sorry, I’ve never read Joyce,” I said ruefully.
His face fell.
“Aw, Ms. Wilson, you’re missing out,” he said. He proceeded to tell me about the layers of characterization surrounding the protagonist and a few of the early themes he was noticing, but gave up after a few minutes of my nodding and smiling.
“You need to read this book so we can talk about it,” he said on his way out of the classroom.
Wish I could, I thought. What I didn’t tell him (because I didn’t want to discourage him and also because I didn’t want to lose face) is that I was so utterly intimidated by the style of prose, by the stream of consciousness technique, by the frequent switching of perspectives and voices, and most of all, by the incomprehensible things people said about Joyce’s works that I was too afraid to read them.
When people in my master’s program talked about Joyce, their language was obtuse and inaccessible to me, like conversations about Kant’s sublime or Derrida’s semiotics. In one class, we read The Odyssey, and a couple of people brought up Ulysses to make comparisons. I remember thinking, “I wish I could read and understand that book, but I doubt I could.”
Ulysses was Mount Everest, and I was an amateur weekend hiker.
So I find myself this December afternoon at base camp, organizing my gear, contemplating whether or not my training and the weather will win me the summit. Why now? Partly coincidence: I saw it was free on Kindle. Partly experience: enjoying some success in my first semester in a Ph.D. program gave me a little additional chutzpah. Partly expedience: I need to keep my mind nimble so I’m ready to dive into the winter term.
Now that I’ve started, I want to make sure I finish. I don’t want this book to wind up on my shelf of half-read novels. Even if it’s painful at times, I want to see it through. So here’s my plan of attack:
- Blog my way through the book. I think having a chance to sarcastically vent about Joyce’s writing style will help demystify it for me.
- Use Sparknotes the right way–that is, to read each summary section after I read the corresponding section in the novel.
- Read with a notebook in hand and a laptop nearby. Write down reactions, observations, and questions in the notebook. Look up unfamiliar terms on the laptop.
Wish me luck. Excelsior!