Skip to Content
Search Icon

The Jungle

This Side Idolatry

On a reading of Ulysses.


I am not one for marathon readings, and I can recall only two books that I have blown through in one sitting. The first is a detective novel by Ottessa Moshfegh. I picked it up at a shop in Rome after a terrific fight with my wife (shouting, slammed doors, fists pounded on the wall) and devoured it in the basement of the McDonald’s behind the Vatican. The second I actually read twice in one sitting. I was in the last row on a long-haul flight from Amsterdam to Washington, and had nothing on me but Shirley Hazzard’s Transit of Venus. When I reached that heavy final phrase—“the great gasp of hull and ocean as a ship goes down”—I remembered the appraisal of Hazzard’s husband, Francis Steegmuller: “No one should have to read it for the first time.” So I did my due diligence and found, as I re-examined that crystalline tragedy, that a third read would likely be required as well.

This diagnosis, that some novels only become intelligible after a few tries, is most often given to Joyce’s Ulysses. (Hardly anyone claims that Finnegans Wake ever becomes legible.) On first read—if there is a first read—Ulysses is said to wash over the reader like a seaborne summer shower. It is only on second, third, and fourth reads that Leopold Bloom’s beachside indiscretions and Molly Bloom’s twenty-four-thousand-word, punctuationless Yes monologue finally become recognizable as towering achievements in English prose. Or so I was told in college. My own opinion is that it is unfair to point to any particular passage in Ulysses for praise or disparagement. It is the ultimate realist novel, in that it attempts to present a day of life—and all of life itself—as it is actually lived; and for that reason, it can only be enjoyed in one long shot.

I think this explains at least in part the popularity of Bloomsday marathon readings. These have taken place more or less annually on June 16, the day on which Ulysses is set, since 1954, when six friends in Dublin attempted to retrace Bloom’s footsteps through the city, exactly as they occurred in the novel. The expedition failed in a typically Irish fashion; midway through their journey, the friends took a break in a pub and soon found themselves unable to leave their benches. Subsequent efforts were more successful, and by the end of the century Bloomsday had become to Dublin what Saint Patrick’s Day is to Chicago. These days, cities throughout the Anglosphere celebrate it. (In America, where all literature is bound up in politics, the festivities usually emphasize the novel’s triumph in an obscenity trial at the Supreme Court over its literary merit.) A proper Bloomsday looks something like a mummers’ play interrupted by a Yippie demonstration: revelers dress in their most absurd Edwardian clothing, bystanders drain pints of Guinness as they gawk, and, of course, the most committed Joyceans read the novel aloud in its entirety—a full performance can last up to thirty-six hours.

My hometown has never been a hotspot for Bloomsday. There was one bookstore in Washington, D.C., that for about five years held an annual reading, but after the entire country closed in March 2020, the read-through was also canceled. Now that shutdowns are long over, I checked the store’s website in early June with some hope, only to find that something quite different had taken Bloomsday’s place. The bookstore is now the official sponsor of Awesome Con, which its owners describe as “Washington DC’s Comic Con! A 3-Day celebration of geek culture, bringing over 70,000 fans together with their favorite stars from across comics, movies, tv, toys, games, and more!” Other searches in libraries, coffee shops, and local theaters proved fruitless. At last, I stumbled on a notice advertising an abbreviated reading at a bookstore just up the street from my house. This is what it said:

Instead of a marathon reading of the entire work—the ultimate experience; our event sees volunteers read short 2-minute episodes from each of the 18 famous chapters. It all takes just a little over an hour. The emphasis is on having fun.

I was intrigued. I have heard Ulysses described as titanic, iconoclastic, and challenging, never as fun. And I was curious to see how my local bookstore (which, incidentally, is co-owned by Hillary Clinton’s former chief speechwriter) could wring any sense out of the two-hundred-sixty-five-thousand-word novel by presenting two-minute snippets which, anyway, were largely uncontextualized dialogue. But a footnote in the notice promised “small spot prizes” to anyone who participated in the reading, so I felt I had no choice but to go and muddle along as best I could.

There were about twenty other people who felt the same way, mostly retirees who lived in the neighborhood. I was the only person there younger than forty. (Perhaps the younger set was at Awesome Con.) We gathered in the back of the bookstore—right by the astrology section—while a middle-aged employee with a faint but real brogue assigned parts to the willing. Before I even had the chance to volunteer, he thrust a sheet of paper into my hands. “I’m giving you one of the hardest parts,” he said. “But I think you can handle it.”

I looked down at the paper. It was from the beginning of the ninth episode, which, in Stuart Gilbert’s schema, is titled “Scylla and Charybdis” (the bookstore included a pronunciation guide for those unfamiliar with the proverbial monsters of Homer). The episode is often excerpted; it’s mostly dialogue—funny dialogue, too—and proof that Joyce’s reputation for humor is not totally unmerited. I took my seat and studied the cadence of my ten sentences.

In front of me two elderly women quarreled over the pronunciation of a few words. One of them, an elementary school teacher, had been assigned the opening paragraphs of the novel, and was worried that she would embarrass herself in front of the audience. She was just settling on a guess at a tricky phrase when she was called up to read. There was no more time for uncertainty, and so she began with confidence:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

Introibo . . .

“I’m really not sure how to pronounce this,” she apologized.

“It’s Latin!” someone in the back shouted.

The schoolteacher shook her head and pressed on, loudly enunciating each syllable of the troublesome psalm with a dull emphasis:


We may as well have been in her fourth-grade English class.

The reading continued in this manner for the next half hour. Very few of the participants had much familiarity with Ulysses, though everyone was enthusiastic. As a woman read from the end of the second episode, where Mr. Deasy tells Stephen Dedalus that Ireland “has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the jews,” the schoolteacher let out a whoop. But her approving cheer came a moment too soon, for the reader continued:

—Because she never let them in, Mr Deasy said solemnly.

A coughball of laughter leaped from his throat dragging after it a rattling chain of phlegm. He turned back quickly, coughing, laughing, his lifted arms waving to the air.

—She never let them in, he cried again through his laughter as he stamped on gaitered feet over the gravel of the path. That’s why.

“Oh,” the schoolteacher mumbled. She didn’t speak for the rest of the reading.

Of course, there were a few real Joyceans present; every city has them. A middle-aged man, dressed in a tuxedo shirt, a bow tie, and green pants, read a stream of legal jargon in episode twelve with perverse relish. All the while, an older gentleman, whose features called to mind an overweight Dr. Zaius, waved his hands through the air, as if he were a conductor calling the words up off the page. When his turn to read came—the notoriously difficult episode fourteen—his speech tumbled out in a melodious murmur better suited to riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s than Joyce’s parody of a schoolboy’s lazy Latin translation. And at the very end, a woman interpreted the final block of text in episode eighteen (“yes I said yes I will Yes.”) with coded winks at her husband that suggested an understanding of Molly Bloom’s monologue uncomfortably more intimate than literary study.

I read, too, without distinction. When the bookstore employee told me that my passage was difficult, I had assumed he was giving me something with twisted diction, irregular punctuation, or whole paragraphs of nonsense words. But, as I glanced at my paper before walking up to the lectern, I realized that he meant difficult in a subtler and altogether sadder way. Episode nine of Ulysses takes place in a library, and it concerns, in the loosest sense, a conversation about Hamlet. Throughout, Stephen Dedalus and his friends discuss, in a freewheeling way, English literature and joke about the possible biographical details of Shakespeare’s love life—while acknowledging admiration, as Ben Jonson did at Shakespeare’s death, “on this side idolatry.” It’s all very amusing, but, I imagine, hard going for those who haven’t read most (or any) of Shakespeare. And, if the bookstore’s own shelf stock was any guide, there was no reason for the employee to assume that I had.

As the decades roll on, Ulysses’s reputation comes to rest less on its stylistic innovation and more on the assumption—and the encouragement—of its admirers’ ignorance. The novel is not an especially hard read, and to those who have a broad familiarity with the great quantity of English texts from which it borrows and steals, it’s not much more than an odd and oftentimes entertaining exercise in technical virtuosity. (It also really is obscene.) But to those for whom these things are a mystery, the novel and its proponents seem to encourage that they remain so. “It is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape,” Eliot wrote. No doubt he would be horrified to learn that, among the diminishing number of high-minded, English-speaking bookworms, it is the only book. And after they die, what will be left?

As promised, I was showered with prizes for my performance. When I returned home, I laid them before my two-year-old daughter: a sheep-leather wallet, a woolen sheep keychain, Dublin-themed postcards, a ballpoint pen, a bar of lemon soap, and a little James Joyce finger puppet. Later, when we went for a drive, she dangled the puppet out the back window of our Mini Cooper. Every now and then, the gilt of his eyeglasses threw all about the backseat bits of the reflected sun, flung spangles, dancing coins.

To continue reading, subscribe to The Lamp.

Get unlimited access to our complete archive when you subscribe.

Already a Subscriber?