My Life in Books - Ulysses

The books on my bookshelves and the bigger stories they tell…

Ulysses by James Joyce was first published in 1922 by SYLVIA BEACH. The edition pictured here was published in 2010 by WORDSWORTH CLASSICS. I read Ulysses as part of the BBC Big Read Top 100. Many of the books on that list became firm favourites of mine; this was never going to be the case with Ulysses. It was a tough read. So tough I had to read a few sections at a time and then read something else to give myself a break. At times it made me feel stupid – I literally couldn’t follow some of the sentences and I needed to read Wikipedia’s outlines of each section just to follow along. When I finally finished I only gave it 3/10 for enjoyment. So why is it important to me?

Ulysses for me, represents the amazing nature of the art we call novel-writing. It is a huge novel in 18 episodes – each written in a different style – with the plot (such as it is) taking place over only one day. Despite the struggle I’m glad I’ve read it. Partly, I like how smart it makes me look – few people outside academia have actually waded through it, and nobody need know I didn’t understand it, right? – and how smug it makes me feel for having finished it. Mostly though, I am glad I have experienced this novel. I actually enjoyed a few of the 18 episodes (most surprisingly to me the final episode, which is a long stream of consciousness (42 pages in this edition, broken up into only eight sentences), but more than that, I love knowing that novels like Ulysses exist; that sometimes, some writers do something extraordinary and timeless. It’s OK that it’s not a lot of fun to read most of it, and that it’s inaccessible to most of us, because there are plenty of fun, accessible novels out there. This broke boundaries and shook the literary world and it’s so important that boundaries are broken and worlds shaken.

Would I recommend Ulysses to people? Not really. But at the same time, I think it’s a wonderful book to experience at some point in your life, so pick a point in your life when you’ve got time to wallow under a book for a few weeks (or months!) and give it a go.