That would be Ulysses by James Joyce. A year ago right now I was reading it and finishing it was my major Covid accomplishment.
In the fall of 1998, I was living in New York City, in the East Village, with my girlfriend, Brooke, who is now my wife. I had recently graduated from Harvard Divinity School and my mind was on fire. I would frequent whatever funky bookstore I came across. I remember going into a place near Cooper Union and on the wall was a list of the greatest novels of all time. Ulysses was at the top. I bought a copy of it and proceeded not to read it for the next 23 years.
I started on January 2, 2021 and finished 3 months later on April 7. It was a glorious and rough experience. Glorious because to read it is to be awash in words. It feels like stepping off a train into the hustle and bustle of a different culture with sights and sounds that you can’t begin to make complete sense of, so you feel swept away by the overall experience itself.
But also rough because it was slog. Paragraphs, pages, and whole signature blocks with no noticeable plot, just words upon words, most of which I understood on their own, but not together. Where is he now? What is he doing? Who’s speaking to him? What are they talking about? Pages and pages.
The book is nearly 800 pages of Leopold Blooms experience walking through Dublin over the course of one day, specifically June 16, 1904. Most of what you read is what is happening in Leopold’s own head. Famously, the last 60 pages are written with no paragraphs or punctuation, the inner monologue of Molly Bloom waiting for Leopold to return to her that night. It took me a week to finish them – I had to put a pencil mark on the exact word where I left off so I would know where to pick up.
Today I read an article in the Harvard Gazette highlighting that Ulysses was first published 100 years ago in February of 1922. It is meant to mirror the adventures of Homer’s Odyssey. The article quoted professor Beth Blum who observed “Virginia Woolf was quite defensive about ‘Ulysses’ when it came out, because she said it was boring and overrated, but after sitting with it more, she saw what he was trying to do and appreciated it. She began to see that Joyce was, as she put it, trying to get thinking into literature.”
I find comfort in knowing that my experience of reading Ulysses was similar to that of Virginia Woolf, boring but appreciated. What I appreciate most about Ulysses was that it conveyed how full every day is with words and sensations and thoughts and feelings and people. A lot of stuff happens in a single day and a lot of stuff doesn’t happen, and the the stuff that doesn’t happen is what fills up most of the day, if that makes sense to anyone but me.
Reading Ulysses for 3 months was an exercise in reading for the enjoyment of reading rather than simply to finish a book and move on to the next one, or even to understand fully what I had read. It was a commitment and required discipline and Covid was the perfect time to do it. I’m not sure I recommend it, but if you have an inkling, I say go for it.