I have been accused of literary sacrilege for reading Ulysses on my iPhone. For a writer who has escaped the chronic error of believing that anything is sacred, I can honestly say that, although I’m surely not the first to have accomplished this, the experience has been nothing but rewarding.
I can’t claim to be a Joyce scholar anymore, although back in college I read all of Joyce and have since reread much of his work, not always with pleasure, though usually so.
Here’s how my favourite literary critic, the great Northrop Frye, describes my favourite novel: “If a reader were asked to set down a list of things that most impressed him about Ulysses, it might reasonably be somewhat as follows. First, the clarity with which the sights and sounds and smells of Dublin come to life, the rotundity of the character-drawing, and the naturalness of the dialogue. Second, the elaborate way that the story and characters are parodied by being set against archetypal heroic patterns, notably the one provided by the Odyssey. Third, the revelation of character and incident through the searching use of the stream of consciousness technique. Fourth, the constant tendency to be encyclopedic and exhaustive both in technique and in subject matter, and to see both in highly intellectual terms. It should not be too hard for us by now to see that these four points describe elements in the book which relate to the novel, romance, confession, and anatomy respectively. Ulysses then, is a complete prose epic with all four forms employed in it, all of practically equal importance, and all essential to one another, so that the book is a unity and not an aggregate.” From Anatomy of Criticism.
Ulysses is considered a ‘hard’ book, and is probably no longer ‘readable’ by the general public without significant training, and without some familiarity with the culture and history of the British Empire prior to the nineteen-twenties, when the book was written. So, although I’m going to write about Ulysses I’m not necessarily recommending it to everyone; I am however recommending that serious readers feel free to read literature, especially the classics, on their electronic devices.
I will relate a little about my rereading of Ulysses on an iPhone, and also about rereading in general, which I believe is essential–for serious readers, and especially for writers-in-training–when attempting to understand the classics.
Getting lost in the fictional life of the Blooms, who don’t own such a tool as a telephone, and have no inkling of the horrors that the century will bring, was always present in my consciousness as I read Ulysses electronically. I can’t say that this was the case during the times when I walked around campus with a thick, heavy tome of one iteration of Joyce’s masterpiece or another, struggling to wade through his dense, brilliantly conceived playfulness. One has to be able to ‘hear’ the characters in that strange place in the mind where the act of reading opens all the senses to intellectual empathy, otherwise reading Joyce becomes almost impossible.
When studying this book in college, despite having the right ‘ear’ for the language–having been born and raised in the British Isles–I still struggled with the text’s density and attempts at humour; sometimes I felt only the gods would understand this author. The long sections and intricately involved lampooning of English literary styles, usually forced me to read surrounded by various kinds of reference books. The difficulty was not helped by the awkwardness of trying to read the text closest to the binding, trying not to crack the copy’s spine as I bent it outwards. But I completed the assignment, and, following the advice of my professor, read the book again immediately. Naturally, the real pleasure gained from the text arrived on the second reading, free of all the support texts, but with lots of minuscule, penciled-in marginalia to remind me of what I’d learned.
In college ‘close reading’ had been necessary to write papers which would impress my mentors. It wasn’t easy and my eyesight suffered. This time, reading on the iPhone, each sentence and paragraph was much more in my control and I was forced by the technology to read everything closely. It was like reading with a microscope and I saw things that my brain had not accepted properly in prior readings. Small, buried details emerged, especially near the end when one’s reading of a paper copy tends to speed up in order to try and finish. I noticed with interest that Leopoldo Bloom had been baptized three times; I noticed, and rather disliked, the way Stephen Daedalus fades from the text after drinking cocoa in the abode of his spiritual father; I noticed the touch-in, easily missed within a speculative list of Molly Bloom’s lovers, that Simon Daedalus, Stephen’s father, may have had sex with her. Yes, admittedly, I can say that these details were not completely unfamiliar, but they had certainly not worked their way into my grasp of the book, which was my failing in that early reading because they are significant details, strategically placed as conclusive material to round out the book’s unity.
Scholars have squabbled about the seemingly small details of Ulysses for decades, and great academics, which only English majors have heard of, like Hugh Kenner and Chester G. Anderson, made their careers vacuuming up Joycian minutiae and wowing graduate students at academic conferences. Close reading then, is everything; complete understanding is to be strived for despite the impossibility of its accomplishment. Reviewers of all kinds should consider this advice, since the ability to read carefully, deeply and without personal bias is being lost in our time–a situation which MUST be ameliorated.
I had two main reasons to make this little personal study: I had recently released a novel, an ‘epic’ to be precise, in the romantic and–as Northrup Frye would call it–‘anatomical’ form, and was fascinated to see how my own process held up against that of Joyce (the book had been in process nearly as long). And, of course, I’m a publisher, and am eager to discover how future readers will consume what I have called here ‘serious’ fiction.
I was pleased and somewhat amazed to see that Ulysses had influenced my writing of House of Large Sizes enough that at least the attempt on my part to construct a unified ‘anatomy’ instead of a modernist ‘aggregate’ was at least structurally sound. Loosely basing the narrative on the Gilgamesh myth, I tried to write the book I wanted to read–an accessible and contemporary epic about decadence and sexual addiction in western culture. Others will judge whether or not I succeeded. I refer interested readers to Northrup Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton Univerity Press, 1957, for a full explanation of these terms.
Perhaps it’s a slightly outlandish concept at present, given the present political zeitgeist, but imagine how novels will be read on star ships headed to other solar systems; imagine how the first Martian settlers will consume the classics of their time. I suspect it will not be by holding big paper tomes, although, just like we love to read hand-written and illuminated manuscripts in our time, paper novels will become cherished artifacts in the future.
Despite some upsurge lately in the sales of ‘real’ books (a rather pompous misnomer), the eBook is here to stay and will be the main source of reading material going forward. Reading Ulysses will be much easier: touch the text anywhere and a fully animated annotation will pop up, possibly even speaking to you in the sexy voice of your choosing. Some brilliant scholar will have the job of developing this support material for the text, and his or her close reading will be the fundamental reason for the book’s viability in the Martian market place. Finally, there may be a place for English majors in the non-academic world!
Don’t worry, there’ll still be plenty of paper books here on earth–god knows I own several thousand of them–but the close reading necessary for deep understanding of our favourite texts is very much enhanced when you use your e-reader; so give it a chance, and get used to it–it’s an advancement that can only benefit the serious reader.