I Hate you, James Joyce! or "The Value of Reading Classic Authors You Despise"
I’ve read James Joyce’s short story “Araby” three times in my life. I hated it every single time.
The first time was in high school. I didn’t get it. Didn’t get the language. Didn’t get the message. Didn’t get the point. The second time was in college. I figured, “Well … I’ll probably get it this time.”
I read it again in grad school. Same result. I decided I didn’t want anything to do with James Joyce.
After graduating from college, I went on a literary sojourn to read all the best books of all time. That’s how I ran into James Joyce again. There he was on the top of several “best novels of all time” lists with Ulysses … sometimes at the top spot. So I figured I would give it a shot.
It was an epic failure. I made it less than 50 pages in before I had to call it quits. I had never experienced anything like it before. I read the words and ZERO images popped into my head. It was basically word salad. The stream of consciousness diarrhea, the weird formatting for the dialogue, the complete and total lack of any coherent plot. I just didn’t get it, and there were so many other books to read so I moved on, vowing to return to conquer Joyce at a later time.
I tried again at 33. I was more mature, more well read, and possessed more patience. Surely, I could conquer “Ulysses” this time.
I failed again. I didn’t get much further than I did the first attempt.
It got me thinking, is it even worth it? Isn’t it okay that I don’t “get” James Joyce? I don’t get Faulkner or Hemingway’s novels (although I love his short fiction) so what’s it matter whether or not I read Ulysses? Like human beings, aren’t there authors we’re not going to connect with? I also believe that Ulysses is the Inception of the book world where the only reason people think it’s any good is because they don’t understand it, and they don’t want to admit they don’t understand it so they claim it’s some sort of masterpiece.
So I decided that it was okay if I didn’t get Ulysses …
… until the 2020 Global Pandemic struck.
I’ve been trying to accomplish some meaningful tasks during the pandemic. I wanted the time I was given away from the world to mean something, and I’ve decided that one of the things I wanted to accomplish was KICKING JAMES JOYCE’S ASS! You think you’re better than me, you Irish bum?! Well, not this time! This time, I’m coming for you Joyce, and I’m going to read every last word of your over-hyped dumpster fire! Endless Shakespeare references? On it. Vague allusions to The Odyssey? Check. Ending sentences with the word “the”? Sure, why the fuck not! You wanna get crazy? Let’s get crazy!
I’m almost 300 pages in at this point. And this time, with all my experience and literary prowess, I’ve developed some strategies to make James Joyce my bitch:
#1) Realize it’s going to be awful. Accept it. Ulysses = Pain.
#2) I only read in complete silence. No reading when the kids are around or over lunch while the TV is on in the background. Every night, I set aside an hour where I can focus on nothing but finishing the day’s section.
#3) If I get lost or don’t understand, I just plow ahead until I get to a section that makes sense.
#4) I’m supplementing my nightly punishments by reading Kurt Vonnegut short stories for pleasure during the day. That way, I don’t have a competing novel going at the same time, but I can still read something I enjoy and ensure myself that I am capable of understanding literature.
Originally, I wanted to read Ulysses to get something out of it, to see what Joyce had to teach me. Now, it’s personal. I don’t want to learn anything from Ulysses, I just want to read it so I can say that I read it, and when people tell me how great it is, I can tell them, “No, I read it. I read the whole thing … and it’s trash! Complete and utter rubbish!”
I will conquer James Joyce and plant his head on a pike in my library. Finishing this book will be a personal badge of honor.
I’m coming for you, James!
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