Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Bloomsday: The Power of One Book

I typically use this blog to write about poetry, but today I'm devoting a post to fiction and a book that changed me forever.

Seven years ago, I was in Dublin, Ireland doing an independent study on James Joyce's Ulysses. I was there for the 99th anniversary of Bloomsday, which is tomorrow. For those who do not know, Bloomsday is the celebration of the day (June 16, 1904) that Joyce picked as the focus of his masterpiece Ulysses. The whole book happens in just one day and follows a not so heroic man, Leopold Bloom, through Dublin.

The novel is structured around The Odyssey and uses various different styles of writing for each chapter. For example, one chapter is written as a script and another in a very journalist style. The book was originally published in 1922, which is one of the most important years in Modernist literature, which is my biggest interest and focus of study. I've always had a fascination with the beginning of the 20th century because of how much the world changed. The literature of the period responds so well to the complications of this new modern world.

I read this book the spring of my sophomore year at my own choosing. I got one of my favorite professors to do a directed study with me that semester. I read a chapter a week and we meet each week to talk about it. I then wrote an essay on the book and a grant to go to Ireland for a month by myself to further study Joyce and be there for the big Bloomsday celebration. The grant got approved and I got a free trip to Ireland for four weeks.

For Americans, it might seem odd to have such a big celebration around a book. In Ireland, however, Bloomsday is a huge celebration. There are tons of events, reenactments, tours, plays, talks, and just general fun. I loved seeing a city so proud of a book. I saw tons of cars with bumper stickers saying "I've Read Ulysses." Quite a bit different from American bumper stickers promoting the love of guns, the support of war, and pleas to "save the tatas." Of course, I had an amazing time and felt like I was inside the book.

Ulysses is considered, by many, to be one of the greatest novels ever written and I agree. Joyce is a master of language and each and everyone sentence his writes carries so much weight. When you read it, you actually need a reference book to help you understand all that is happening and the careful construction of each and every phrase.

I've been thinking about Joyce a lot recently because of a NPR story on Frank Delaney who is currently deconstructing each sentence of Ulysses through daily podcasts. He's been doing it for a year and just got through chapter 1. The project is a huge one, but it shows you just how rich and complicated Joyce is. You don't see a writer like him everyday. Even if you haven't read Ulysses, it is worth taking a listen to one of these podcasts to get a sense of what I'm talking about.

My favorite chapter of Ulysses is the final chapter (18). It is in the voice of Leopold Bloom's wife and contains no punctuation other than a period at the end of the chapter. It's an amazing exploration of love, marriage, and the struggles of life. It also contains the famous last words of the novel, which are "and yes I said yes I will Yes." I have these words on a t-shirt I bought in Dublin, which is what I'm wearing in the photo above.

Ulysses is forever apart of my life and my experiences. It is tied to my own growth as a writer and reader. It is tied to my first trip to Europe and my first trip by myself. Ulysses reminds me of the power of language and literature and how no matter how much technology or other forms of entertainment we come up with, nothing can replace a well-written, complicated, fascinating, rich, and often quite vulgar book.

-Stephen (Yes)


  1. I agree about Ulysses. Nice to meet another fan.

    It seems like a lot of people have been really down on Joyce lately, which I don't get. I even heard some critic claim that Joyce's writing was "incoherent" largely because of syphillis—the fallacy of cause, that the author's will could not have been engaged. I think that's a ridiculous attitude. But anyway.

    I read Ulysses when I was 17 or 18. I really loved it. It made a lot of sense to me, and has no doubt influenced me deeply across the years. I also read all of the rest of Joyce, including the Wake, during those years. (I seem to be among the small number of people who have actually read the Wake. LOL )

    BTW, I love the t-shirt! That is still one of the sexiest lines in all of literature. :)

  2. Art,

    Thanks for the great comment! I haven't tackled Wake yet, but I want to eventually.

  3. Lovely post! Cherished all my trips to Ireland--lots of layovers there when I was a "stew." The Writer's Museum in Dublin one of my favorite places to hang out.