Ulysses is the kind of book you could read again and again and again and again and always absorb a different narrative or interpretation - but right now it's a book I'd be happy to leave where it is and never look at again. I'll still agree with someone if they tell me it's one of the best books of all time. I still gave it 4 out of 5 stars. I recognize its brilliance, its completeness, its revolutionizing effect on literature and the English language. But boy was it hard to get through.
I mean - again, can I really say anything about this book that hasn't already been said thousands of times before?
It's so complex and uses so many styles, devices, lack of devices, structure and total lack of structure that at times you feel entirely at sea and unsure why you decided to read such a monster.
It's about nothing (the plot is an ordinary day in an ordinary life where a cuckolded husband wakes up, eats, does errands, thinks a lot, goes to a funeral, works a tiny bit, spaces out, commits every single one of his thoughts to memory, masturbates, hallucinates, feels shameful, rescues a drunk guy from a whorehouse, invites him home, and gets into bed with his unfaithful wife) and everything (Ireland, the English language, marriage, sex, religion, blasphemy, atheism, food, poop, pee, birth, death, women, men, poetry, work, leisure, ancestors, family, expectations, whimsy, planning, alcohol, money, progress, anachronism, monarchy, bureaucracy, advertising, scholarship, bathing, not bathing, teaching, inattention, apathy, shame, pretentiousness, death, life, home, sailing, Western views of non-Western cultures, infidelity, loyalty, childhood, loss, cats, petticoats, and farts).
It wouldn't be honest for me to say that I read the whole thing. I'd be shocked if more than a few thousand scholars on the planet read every single word of that book and understood it. The process of reading this book encapsulated perfectly the goal of this blog - to examine reading and what it means to be literate. When I read forty pages containing fewer than eight periods, or 150 pages of the weirdest play ever written, or a nine-part examination the English language in a scene where a baby is born and a group of guys go to a bar, I freely admit that I didn't absorb every word. I didn't get every reference, I didn't pick up each parodic joke.
But I think that's okay. Reading a book like this is an experience that is hopefully more enjoyed than endured. I enjoyed large parts of it. I endured some parts of it. I expect to go back and read chunks later in my life. But for now, I'm excited beyond measure to be done with the beast.
In general, Joyce seems to have - in my limited literate understanding of books and writing - shifted the tectonic plates of what literature means. I would guess that Ulysses truly pioneered different methods of examining the day-to-day life of humans so that I get to enjoy work by Nicholson Baker and Chuck Palahniuk and friends. That's pretty cool.