I started it, one of the most formidable items on my Reading Oxford Project, on 21 March 2021 and finished it on 29 April (the same year). Ulysses is notorious for being difficult to read. Did I get all of it? No. Did I fall asleep often? Yes. But I did drag my eyes over every sentence and every page and I even managed to enjoy parts of it (for example, the end of the chaotic pub episode). For a first attempt, I think that’s not too bad.
Instead of boasting how mature a reader I am (because I’m not), I’m going to share with you all the different forms of help I received to complete this mountainous task.
I chose the 1922 text published by Oxford University Press at the beginning purely because it was the cheapest option available. In fact, most of the classics I’ve been reading are part of the Oxford World’s Classics series; it’s almost always the most affordable edition on the market.
Cost aside, here’s why I liked this edition. According to the Explanatory Notes, the guiding principle for the editor to compile all the notes is to ask “What would help the student coming to the book for the first time?” and the editor believes “Nothing can substitute for the intimate first-hand experience of reading the book” instead of reading about it. I liked those points and trusted the editor as my guide.
Oxford World’s Classics series always include an Introduction and a chronology of the author before the main body, and substantial Explanatory Notes at the back. In the case of Ulysses, there are over two hundred pages of Explanatory Notes. In the Notes, each chapter is listed with its chapter title, location and time of the events in that chapter, the mirror story in Odyssey, overall commentary of the chapter and then the list of annotations.
Joyce’s own comments appear often among the notes, for example, he told his Aunt Josephine to read the Adventures of Ulysses by Charles Lamb if she found Odyssey itself difficult (which Joyce also told her to read before Ulysses). I would have bought a copy of Adventures immediately if not for the fact that it’s out of print. (Apart from Shakespeare and Homer, what else has blessed Charles Lamb done retelling for children?) I did get a copy of Odyssey, recently translated by Emily Wilson – I’ll report on that on a future date.
That’s not all. There is also a map of 1904 Dublin, notes and charts about the publishing history, errata etc etc. The amount of work that has gone into this edition is staggering!
(Disclaimer: I haven’t tried all the other editions but I do think mine does a tremendous job.)
The Joyce Project
The Joyce Project is a website worth visiting. It has the full text of Ulysses with notes, photos and maps for certain words and phrases as hyperlinks. The images are especially helpful in a visual way. But I did find myself wanting to click on every link and losing the wood for the trees pretty quickly.
Sparknotes has been one of the best things I discovered last year. It’s a website that aims to help students “conquering the classics, one book at a time” by providing summaries, lists of characters, analysis of the themes and ideas, and, best of all, quizzes!
For Ulysses (here’s its Sparknotes webpage), I read the original text and the Sparknotes’ chapter summaries alongside each other. You probably can call this cheating, but I determined to keep going even if I had to cheat! To be fair, I wasn’t reading the summaries because I was feeling lazy. There really wasn’t any hope of me figuring out everything on my own. I’d rather accept help than give up in confusion and frustration.
If Sparknotes made sure I understood what the book was about, the audiobook made sure I carried on at a certain speed and finished before running out of steam. The pleasant Irish voice marched on full of spirit and good cheer, always holding my hand, word by word, line by line, pulling and pushing me faithfully across the finishing line. Thank you my friend!
Like the book itself, a huge amount of work went into the audio production, even before the voice actor went into the studio I’m sure of it. For example, in addition to the text, each chapter starts with a song or a piece of music that sets the scene. I take my hat off to everyone in the production team.
I respect and admire the voice actor Jim Norton tremendously, not just because of the sheer amount of time and energy that’s required – I’d respect anyone who took on the mammoth task of reading the whole of Ulysses out loud – but also because of the excellent quality of the performance. It was completely beyond my expectation. Here’s someone who knows and loves Ulysses and because of his knowledge, enthusiasm and energy, I love it too.
One thing that stood out throughout the book was the various song lyrics scattered in the story. One reason that Ulysses is difficult is that a lot of the time the thoughts of a person are fragmented and mixed up, like a plate of Christmas dinner. The song lyrics would often blend into a sentence without any markers (like a piece of roast potato, unrecognisable among roast parsnip and turnip, swimming in gravy). If I had read the text without the audiobook, there was no way I could distinguish that, but the voice actor just every now and then burst into singing. It was delightful.
So what did I do? Not much, except I removed as many obstacles as possible and made reading Ulysses as easy as possible for myself. I’m not sure if Joyce would approve but I’ve done it now. The book was too long? I concentrated on reading and listening to it 30 minutes to an hour per day and tried not to worry how many pages were left. The paragraphs didn’t make sense? If reading Sparknotes didn’t clarify it, I let it pass without feeling guilty. It put me to sleep? Just set a timer and sleep for 15 minutes, then carry on!
Here are all my tips. Do give it a(nother) go!