June 16th

June 26, 2012 Books

Last Saturday was Bloom’s day. Yes, I bet some of you missed it, so mark it on your calendar for next year. I took the day off to celebrate the vivid and seemingly limitless imagination of James Joyce. Anyone who has struggled to interpret Ulysses knows whereof I speak. Joyce was one of a kind — obscure, maddening, complex, yet brilliant.

Joyce was startingly erudite. Ulysses  is 265,000 words long with an encyclopedic lexicon of 30,030. The final chapter consists of eight extraordinary run-on sentences. He wrote sentences as long as a thousand words.

Ulysses has a plot, if any is recognizable,  that is a parallel to Homer’s Odyssey. Bloom travels through Dublin akin to Odysseus returning to Penelope. Joyce principally used a stream of consciousness technique along with many others which reminds me of Faulkner’s first chapter in The Sound and the Fury. The novel takes place in a single day June 16, 1904. Joyce had an obsessive focus on detail and it is said if Dublin was ever destroyed it could be reconstructed using Ulysses as a guide.

So Saturday was Bloom’s Day, named for the day described in Ulysses when Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus walk through Dublin meeting people and thinking odd and delicious thoughts. Last Saturday thousands of Joyce fans traced Bloom’s voyage and had fun doing it, especially at the Irish bars. Others participated by reading aloud the entirety of the book. No matter how we do it, we should reflect upon the literary genius who created an intricate and complex work of art. In today’s hyper-fast electronic world, not many will take the time to read and understand Ulysses and other Joyce novels; they know not what they are missing.

I first tried to read Ulysses in junior high school and didn’t get very far. It wasn’t until much later that I was able to get it. This is without question the most difficult book I have ever read except for his next book, Finnegan’s Wake, which can only be understood by PhDs in English L,it. Ulysses is about language and we can’t deny the absolute mastery of language apparent in Ulysses. Once I understood that and stopped searching for a plot, a theme, or even sense, I enjoyed the book for what it had to offer.

Ulysses is more an intricate puzzle than a traditional novel; Joyce used paradox, paradigm, pun, parody, contrarian, contradiction and more. The array of writing styles is astounding: a simple novel; 30 pages of newspaper column; a 180-page play; 70 pages of questions followed by answers; and one final chapter made up of seemingly 30-40 pages in eight sentences of rambling autobiographical sexual revelation by Leopold’s insatiable wife Molly Bloom.

Ulysses also has a legal connection. As we are well aware the United States Customs are not aficionados of great literature and they banned importation of Ulysses claiming it was pornographic. In a famous 1933 court decision, Judge John M. Woolsey declared it sufficiently non-obscene to allow its importation into the United States finding “. . . the effect of `Ulysses’ on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.”

I love to read and much of what I read is not particularly difficult but it is fun. I am addicted to thrillers, following in the footsteps of the inimitable Jay Hogan. But in between them I try to read something more challenging, something that will add to my skills or fund of knowledge. So I also suggest don’t just read the easy stuff. You may be entertained by it, but you will never grow from it.

Take for example the following sentence from Ulysses: “An exquisite dulcet epithalame of most mollification suadency for juveniles amatory whom the odoriferous flambeaus of the paranymphs have escorted to the quadrupedal proscenium of connubial communion.” Once you can decipher this you can read anything in the English language!

Prospective law students ask me what is the best undergraduate training for the law. I suggest English literature. If one can read and grasp Joyce’s ideas in Ulysses, the law will come easy.

Remember that old adage about “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”? Well, struggling through Ulysses is like struggling through legal opinions in law school. As athletic feat is derived from hours of repetitive drills, so too may this novel’s conquest only be enjoyed after years of reading and ever improving reading skills. This is not a book for the amateur.

Law school requires the disciplines of legal reading, case analysis, writing, and advocacy. One of the critical skills necessary for a legal education is the ability to read a judicial opinion accurately and be able to use it in a reasoned argument. It requires the ability to find a deep understanding of the material. This is not dissimilar to reading a difficult piece of fiction.

There is a reading strategy used to enhance the understanding of a case opinion. It requires the ability to prepare for a classroom recitation which mirrors the real advocacy of the courtroom. Legal reading is a challenging task. The language is confusing and obscure. The terms unfamiliar. The structure strange. But words are the lawyer’s tools. One must evaluate and question the text and search for the meaning.

Here is my favorite passage describing what is needed for critical reading:

“A book like this, a problem like this, is in no hurry; we both, I just as much as my book, are friends of lento. It is not for nothing that I have been a philologist, perhaps I am a philologist still, that is to say, A TEACHER OF SLOW READING: — in the end I also write slowly. Nowadays it is not only my habit, it is also to my taste — a malicious taste, perhaps? — no longer to write anything which does not reduce to despair every sort of man who is ‘in a hurry.’ For philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow — it is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the WORD which has nothing but delicate, cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento. But precisely for this reason it is more necessary than ever today, by precisely this means does it entice and enchant us the most, in the midst of an age of ‘work’, that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to ‘get everything done’ at once, including every old or new book: — this art does not so easily get anything done, it teaches to read WELL, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers….My patient friends, this book desires for itself only perfect readers and philologists: LEARN to read me well! “
Nietzsche, preface to Daybreak

If this was true in the 19th century, it is far more today. We are addicted to electronic instruments rather than dense texts and we have descended into using shortcuts and abbreviations rather than English words. We read and write too fast. We don’t take time to savor the message. To make the words sing. We write commercial messages whose only charm is accidental.

So read Joyce, read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1,000 pages of dense, meandering narrative with 388 lengthy footnotes), read Paradise Lost or anything by Alexander Pope (the wonderfully erudite 18th century poet)  and take your time doing it.

Mortimer Adler, in conjunction with Charles Van Doren, wrote How To Read A Book. Adler gives the how-to-read tips but goes beyond that. He describes how reading about ideas permeate the mind of the reader. He espouses the art of marginalia which I frequently engage in. I enjoy annotating the books I love. Here is one of his best passages:

“When you buy a book, you establish a property right in it, just as you do in clothes or furniture when you buy and pay for them. But the act of purchase is actually only the prelude to possession in the case of a book. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it — which comes to the same thing — is by writing in it.

Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake — not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.

Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.”