I’ve actually read Ulysses several times, it’s not just long, it’s really rich and there’s so much in it it can easily bear multiple readings. Below are my dos and don’ts for an enjoyable Modernist Irish-lit experience; the things I’ve learned, wished I knew from the start and have picked up along they way to prevent aborted Ulysses attempts (something else I’m guilty of)
– Get an edition you can handle. I read the penguin classic paper back, because it doesn’t have any extraneous notes (see don’t below) and is about as light as book this length can be. The last time I read it, I alternated between my paperback and my kindle. It worked well for my back and for reading on the train, but I have a personal attachment to my paperback now – we’ve been through so much together – so my recommendation might be to try to build up an attachment to your kindle, if possible. It will certainly lead to less back strain if you want to read on the go
– Overreach yourself. I’d really recommend against an annotated or even footnoted version for your first read. If you want to study the book, by all means, there is a library of secondary material out there and it’s very rewarding, but it’s not the same as just reading for reading’s sake. Because there is so much to say about every phrase, allusion and word in Ulysses footnotes will only ever be highly incomplete anyway, so why add the weight and interrupt the reading experience? The best part of Ulysses is getting carried away with Joyce’s prose, not stopping every two words to learn exactly what date he caught what tram and bumped into what friend who mispronounced which Latin phrase.
– Read with a dictionary. There is nothing like reading Ulysses for learning new words. This is another time when reading on a Kindle is really really helpful.
– Tell your friends every new word you have learned, unless you know they have a lot of patience and you’re confident with how to pronounce them
– Prepare yourself for the tone. This is my top tip for reading Ulysses and I only discovered it a few years ago. Basically, I really struggle with the first chapter. I read the first few sentences and my heart sinks:
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:
—Introibo ad altare Dei.
Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called out coarsely:
—Come up, Kinch! Come up, you fearful jesuit!
I don’t know who Buck Mulligan is, I don’t understand Latin and I there’s something about the pretentious prose that I find insufferable. By the way, Buck and Stephen (called Kinch, here, don’t know why) are living in a tower. I know I warned against footnotes, but this is one thing that I do think helps because they keep looking over parapets, and it’s actually not a metaphor…
My Ulysses reading experience has changed hugely since I discovered the importance of pre-reading. Basically, Ulysses starts where ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ leaves off. Now, ‘A Portrait’ is famous because it changes its vocabulary from the young Stephens infantile (infantile for Joyce anyway) lexicon to the kind of overly-intellectual word games quoted above. The last chapter of the earlier book moves seamlessly into the first chapter of the latter. Buck Mulligan doesn’t appear in in ‘A Portrait’, but he easily could and using ‘Portrait’ as a starter novel really really helped me access that alienating first chapter.
– expect to understand everything. Like I said, Ulysses can be read and re-read and there’s always something new in it. If you feel like you’re missing the joke in a specific section, don’t labour it; pass on and assume that you’ll go back to it if it’s that important to you. Or use Google.
– consider working with the schemata. Joyce divided the book into chapters which are (just) noticeable dividers in my own edition. Joyce then wrote out a schemata to help his friend Stuart Gilbert who, fool that he was, didn’t get all the intricacies of the structure. The reason I found this helpful, though again this was on a re-reading because no one told me in time, was that it allowed me to understand the connections with the classical tale of Ulysses. Personally I’ve kind of enjoyed keeping track by only looking at the first three columns, but if you want to draw connections between the oesophagus, constables and architecture that’s good too.
And finally, do enjoy it! To quote Molly Bloom: ‘yes I said yes I will Yes.’