On Reading With Footnotes
I’m not sure yet what to make of Ulysses. I enjoy it in the way that I enjoy lifting heavy objects or trying to do the Sunday crossword. But I also wonder what I’m reading, exactly.
To start with, the internet abounds with advice on how to read the book. Among that advice:
Read it more than once
Read about the book while you’re reading the book.
Read it slowly but very very steadily (don’t take a break, read every day).
Read each of the first eight episodes in one day, if not one sitting.
Read at the table with a pencil and one of a handful of approved books of annotations.
Read it more than once. Okay –– if it’s that good, then okay. But I’ll take care of the first reading first. Learn about how people derive the most meaning from the book as I hack and claw through it. That seems reasonable. Read it slowly. Absolutely. Steadily. Definitely. If it’s challenging, then putting it down for a couple days is probably the worst thing a person could do. Read each of the first eight episodes in one sitting (one sitting each, that is). They’re short and it gets the reader into the groove; builds a little confidence.
The only bit of advice that I’ve had trouble with is the annotations. I can’t read that way. People say that Ulysses contains all of life. Assuming that something so over the top could also be true, stopping any time I don’t understand a word would be like trying to wring every drop of potential meaning from life as it passes, to the detriment of living it. The best advice in that pile is probably one of the first two. The slow and steady note is just practical but the first is philosophical. One article said rather than to read it twice, that I was better to “resign myself to multiple readings.” It sounds a little nihilistic but to me it suggested that one pass will never do. Just read it. When it comes time, read it again and get more out of it.
Reading with all the footnotes in hand drives me crazy. I tried with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and learned some neat turn of the century Jesuit phraseology but I gave up halfway through and preferred the experience of that latter half.
I think the best analysis of the book I’ve stumbled across (read about the book) is of the very first scene. Buck Mulligan steps out into the sunlight carrying a razor and brush crossed over a bowl of shaving lather in imitation of communion in Catholic mass. Buck is irreverently mocking Catholicism but Joyce is elevating the everyday shit that each normal person in a teeming city does without thinking to the level of the divine. It’s a little dramatic but the symbolism is more straightforward than anything else Joyce dishes up so it seems right to me.
If Ulysses is about the mundane world, is a representation on the page of life itself, of everything and anything that flits across the consciousness over the course of a normal day, then it seems counterproductive to resist the rhythm of that life. Of course understanding what’s going on in all the tight little corners of the world around is rewarding but Joyce could’ve just written the history and philosophy rather than hiding everything in veiled allusions and dense jokes. Meaning is valuable, of course, but halting at every step to look at the guidebook seems antithetical to the whole project.