Here's a Bloomsday extract from my book Sod That: 103 Things Not To Do Before You Die... In which the message is don't read Ulysses.*
If you do as we’re all urged and take up James Joyce’s overlong magnum opus, it is guaranteed to clog up your all too short life. Banned, criticised and suppressed on moral grounds when it first came out, it thereby became far more famous and far more durable than it would ever have been otherwise. Had it been published openly originally, the book would in all probability have been openly ignored, or at least gained wider recognition for the pretentious nonsense it is. The lives of generations of English Literature undergraduates the world over would have been considerably eased as a result.
Many readers might experience a strange feeling of guilt at thus disregarding a book that has come to be considered as such an important part of the mythical literary canon. Wading through Ulysses is often regarded as a kind of coming of age. You have to get through it to prove your worth to those invisible cultural arbiters who we imagine sit in judgement of us all. You have to know what happened to Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in Dublin on 16 June 1904, even though the answer is, basically, nothing.
The other thing to remember about trying to prove your bookish credentials by knowing about Ulysses is that no one who actually possesses a wide knowledge of literature will believe you if you try to convince them you've read every word. They – having attempted to grind through it themselves – will understand what a thankless task it is and won't believe you.
OK, there are some fine qualities to the book. There’s some magnificent worldplay, some world beating writing and top class rudery. But a few clever turns of phrase and a couple of pervy passages don't make up for the fact that if you want to understand even half of it you have to lug a dictionary user’s guide around with it – unappealing when the book alone already weighs more than a small child.
The only passages that do make sense are the rude ones. So just do what everyone else does and cut straight to them. Skip the rest. Especially skip the 150-odd pages of punctuation bereft prose that starts: ‘Deshill Holles Eamus. Deshil Holles Eamus. Deshill Holles Eamus’ and ends ‘anyway I wish hed sleep in some bed by himself with his cold feet on me give us room even to let a fart God or do the least thing better yes hold them like that a bit on my side piano quietly sweeeee theres that train far away pianissimo eeeee one more song.’
Everything you need to know about this section is neatly contained in the word ‘nonsense’.
There is at least one good thing to be said about Ulysses, however. It does at least also have the distinct advantage of not being Finnegan’s Wake. Now that's a book you should die before reading.
On Ulysses’ first release the Sporting Times declared that the book: ‘appears to have been written by a perverted lunatic.’ Paper of record the New York Times opined: ‘The average intelligent reader will glean little or nothing from it – even from careful perusal, one might properly say study, of it – save bewilderment and a sense of disgust.’ The popular critic ‘Aramis’, meanwhile, correctly pointed out that: ‘Two thirds of it is incomprehensible.’
More Useless Trivia
A 2007 poll commissioned by teletext discovered that 28% of Britons confessed to being unable to finish Ulysses, making it the third most unread book in the country, following DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Sod That is still available at amazon and perhaps even a few good bookshops. (Beware of poor quality imitations!)
*I may not agree with everything I have written here.