Looking through the online catalogue of the very cool Litographs which, among other things, makes literary temporary tattoos, I came across this one, which recreates Molly Bloom’s iconic closing line of James Joyce’s Ulysses, “yes I said yes I will Yes,” purposely devoid of any punctuation save the closing full stop.
It seems appropriate with Bloomsday fast approaching that I should talk about why Ulysses is one of my favorite books. Not for any snooty, ‘looking down my superior and literary nose at the plebeians who have never read it’ reasons, but because of something nearly the opposite. Being shown how to read Ulysses actually taught me so much about how to read—close reading in between the lines—in general.
My senior year of college was spent completing my English degree and fitting in any other required courses my university required for graduation. I realized, also, that I was thisclose to adding on a minor in either French or Irish Studies (you know, those degrees that are super helpful in the real world). I chose Irish Studies, mainly because I hadn’t taken a French class in at least a year and frankly, Irish Studies just seemed more interesting.
That year, I had two classes where I was the only student. The first was a class about feminism in 20th Century Ireland and not only was I the only student to sign up for it, but the university totally forgot the cancel the class, like they’re supposed to do in a situation where there are fewer than I believe five students. The professor emailed me the day before, a letter which basically consisted of “um, well, this wasn’t supposed to happen, but I’m game if you are,” and so without any classroom assignment, we met in a pub once a week and talked about cool Irish ladies. Not terrible.
The other class was one of my own making—I’d always wanted to read Ulysses, but never trusted that I could venture in on my own. An overly confident seventeen-year-old Rachel once decided she would read it over the summer after covering Portrait of an Artist in her senior year English lit class and ostentatiously carried it around with her for about a month before quietly abandoning the book after making it through a chapter and a half with only the vaguest understanding of what was going on. After approaching my advisor with the idea, I found a professor willing to take me on an independent study course where we met once a week in her office to discuss the chapters one at a time.
I loved it. I have never, ever been someone who marks up her books, but boy is my copy of Ulysses littered with as many of my own scrawlings as Joyce’s (not entirely true). I learned how to be an active reader, how to consider in depth references and also to read in virtually any style known to man (up until 1922) since no two of Joyce’s chapters, or episodes as they are called, is written in the same manner. I read each on my own, marking to the best of my ability, genuinely laughing out loud at sentences and allusions that I would never have understood previously, and then marked them up some more in the hour-long sessions with my professor.
It was a truly enjoyable and enlightening experience and I believe it has forever changed the way I approach a novel, no matter how straightforward or complicated it may be. I’ve since reread the book and have found myself able to follow along unencumbered, and I’ll always be forever grateful for the opportunity that I had. There are countless ways to write, countless ways to read and countless ways to interpret a text, which is part of (all of?) the reason why books and literary pursuits in general are so important. There is always a new thing to discover and no two people will be affected by a piece of writing in the same way. All we can do is gather more and more tools with which to approach ever more books, while delighting in going back to old favorites with our newfound perspectives.
I’d love to know, too, if there are any particular books or moments of clarity that stand out to you as a turning point in your reading career!