So I have this thing where I commit to reading five Very Big Books a year, to protect myself from only reading small novellas to boost my Goodreads Challenge. If you have as many books on your to-read pile as I do, it’s sometimes hard to read the big ones because it means there’s just less books to cross off at the end of the month. One of the Very Big Books I wanted to read this year was James Joyce’s Ulysses.
I once tried this book before. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an interest in classical culture and stories. I read a lot about mythology and ancient history, so my mother heard me mention the character Ulysses a few times. So trying to find a present for me, she remembered this book she once heard of, called Ulysses, and she bought it for me. I was fourteen when I first tried this book. I came halfway through the first page and decided I needed to be a few years older before I could read the rest of the book.
Now, most of the Very Big Books I’ve read actually weren’t that bad. They’re all classics, and they’re classics for a reason: people like to read them. So they are good books and they didn’t turn out as hard as I imagined. Thus, I started Ulysses very hopefully, thinking I’d have read this one in no time. Boy, was I wrong.
Ulysses was one of the hardest books I’ve ever read, for multiple reasons. First of all, it’s very big. My edition was printed on pretty thin paper, with small printing, and it was still 933 pages. With such a hard book, this means you get demotivated pretty easily. Some times I felt like I made real good progress, and I’d went to Goodreads to keep track of my progress and I’d find out my progress was exactly 2% of the whole book. It’s just really big.
Secondly, Joyce doesn’t really use easy language. My edition was in English, and I read a lot of books in English and I seldom have trouble with it, but this was different. The language is so dense it’s hard to keep track of your sentences, and apparently Joyce invents his own words along the way. This may be fun for a native speaker, but for someone who has English as a second language it can be pretty confusing. I wasn’t always sure if I didn’t understand things because my English wasn’t good enough, or because I just wasn’t supposed to understand it.
If all of this isn’t hard enough, I found the plot extremely hard to follow as well. Ulysses describes one day in the life of Leopold Bloom, and he gets to 933 pages by getting into every little detail. For example: Bloom wants to get a glass of water and wonders where the water comes from. Cue to give us half a page of explaining where the water comes from. The water finally comes out of the faucet, and Bloom takes a whole page to think about all the qualities he like about water: that it’s transparent, that it takes the form of its container, etc. So it takes Joyce two whole pages to make his main character get a glass of water. Some parts really take some dedication to get through. When Joyce started a a sentence around page 700 with the words “To make a long story short,” I was so frustrated I was able to rip the whole book in half. To make a long story short? Really?! You only just realise you might have to edit a bit more when you’ve already written 700 pages?
Nevertheless, this book can still be worth the read. Especially when you’ve read a few modernist and post-modernist books, you’ll notice how much of a turning point this book was, with its choice in subject and themes, and the use of stream of consciousness. Ulysses really has been important for the history of literature. However, I do not feel like I am in a position to recommend this book to anyone. Even better, I don’t feel like anyone is in that position. This book asks so much of you, it’s really not fair to make people read the whole thing. It’s good to know what it’s about, and to have read a few fragments, but it takes so much time to finish it and I don’t know if you get anything back for it that you couldn’t have learned from reading fragments.