Tuesday, June 16, 2009

I find this exciting. Is that wrong of me?

Today, famously to the academy and unknown to pretty much the rest of everyone, is Bloomsday: the date -- June 16, in 1904 -- on which takes place the entirety of that great fathomless ocean Ulysses by James Joyce. Today, as every year on June 16, marathon readings are under way in Dublin, here in NYC, and no doubt in other cities too. Every year I wish I could skip work and go, which is not possible, so then I consider going after work for a few hours, and I never do. It's too intimidating. All those highly knowledgeable literary scholars, and then there'd be me, lonely, stupid, skulking in the back row, straining and probably failing to understand what the hell's going on.

OK. But. I'm not sure why, yet I remain drawn to Ulysses. I don't know a damned thing about it as a relic of class society; I should look into Marxist analyses of it. I don't know a damned thing about it from nearly any other perspective either. Understand me: this is not a brag, some kind of anti-intellectual reverse snobbery. On the contrary, this is a lament. I wish to know about this book. Most of all, I wish to know it. To read it. To find out for myself what the fuss is all about.

Now then. I did begin this project. Several years ago I bought and started reading Ulysses. Sure, I found it rough going. But I also found it full of surprises. It's funny as hell, for one thing. Who knew? A classic that's also a hoot? Bloom's Jewishness, and how it's woven throughout thematically, also caught me up short and intrigued me. Still, I'd be lying if I said I understood more than half of what I was reading. So I put it down, defeated, temporarily.

Then I picked it up and tried again. This time I did something wild: I found a Cliff's-Notes-type explication online, printed it, stuck it inside the book. As I read, I referred to this chapter-by-chapter plain-language translation of what's actually happening, the action of the book. It helped me feel less at sea. But it didn't smooth my passage through the pages enough to let me sail onward. Instead, for the last several years, I've picked it up, read 30 or 40 or 50 pages, then put it down again for a while. So the reading of Ulysses has turned out to be a years-long project. Which I'm at peace with. I know I'll keep returning. And I know I'll finish it one day.

Now I know that day will come sooner than I'd expected. Thanks to this: Ulysses "Seen": a graphic presentation of the novel "meant to be [a] mere companion piece" to the work itself. In other words, an entryway, for those like me who've had a hard time navigating the thicket ourselves, but who want to oh so much. I love what the folks at Throwaway Horse, the entity behind this project, have to say about what they're doing and why:
... by outfitting the reader with the familiar gear of the comic narrative and the progressive gear of web annotations, we hope that a tech-savvy new generation of readers will be able to cut through jungles of unfamiliar references and appreciate the subtlety and artistry of the original book ... . Ulysses is uniquely suited to this treatment. ... It kills us that it has gotten the reputation for being inaccessible to everyone besides the English professors who make their careers teaching the book to future English professors who will make their careers doing the same. 'Tweren't supposed to be that way. It is a funny, sometimes scatological, book about the triumphs and failures of hum-drum, everyday life. It makes heroes out of shlubs and cuts the epic down to size.
Wow. Am I ever on board with this. What a wonderful, and as far as I know unique, way to use the new technology in the service of literature, of making literature truly available to the masses of readers outside the highbrow elite. Now the only question is whether I'll be able to do anything else -- any of the many other things I'd planned on doing -- over my vacation, or spend the whole of it moving between Ulysses "Seen" online and Ulysses the book in my lap.