On Reading James Joyce’s Ulysses

No one has ever really read Ulysses. And if they try to convince you otherwise, they’re either lying or pulling your chain.

That’s what our high school English teacher used to tell us about James Joyce’s epic novel, Ulysses. The natural skeptic that I am, the day after I first heard this proclamation, I went to my local library and decided to check out the book. However, it didn’t happen. I found the book on the shelf, opened it up, and started reading:

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 by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned: INTROIBO AD ALTARE DEI

It was at this point that I said, “Whaaa?” Nevertheless, I decided to keep reading. I finished the first page. The damage was done. I put the book back on the shelf, defeated. I realized that perhaps those who say that they have read Ulysses, they maybe read the first page, or even the first chapter. But I have a hard time believing that they’ve read the entire book and understood what they’ve read.

Here is Joseph Collins writing in the New York Times in 1922 (I echo his sentiment and appreciate the critique):

A few intuitive, sensitive visionaries may understand and comprehend Ulysses, James Joyce’s new and mammoth volume, without going through a course of training or instruction, but the average intelligent reader will glean little or nothing from iteven from careful perusal, one might properly say study, of itsave bewilderment and a sense of disgust.

I recently met someone—let’s call her Emma—who mentioned that Ulysses is one of her favorite books. Curious, I inquired further. The conversation went like this:

Eugene: Wow, so you’ve read James Joyce’s Ulysses? [Editor’s note: I am always careful to preface works of literature with an author’s name; for all I know, Emma might have thought I was talking about Tennyson’s poem of the same name]

Emma: Yes, it is one of my favorite books. I’ve put blood, toil, tears, and sweat into that book, and I am proud of having read it.

Eugene: Okay, I understand the tears, sweat, and the toil. But did you really bleed while reading Ulysses?

Emma: Yes. Paper cut!

So there you go. Apparently that’s what it takes to read Ulysses.

Question for the reader: have you read Ulysses? Have you, really?


[Resource: Analyzing Ulysses, in which Avinash Vora estimates that the book contains a (unique) vocabulary of 30,030 words. That’s incredible!]