Thursday, June 18, 2009

Bloomsday and reading

James Joyce's Ulysses and the Irish celebration of Bloomsday (a couple days ago on June 16) is rather far outside the normal subject matter of this blog, but it ties into another subject that I'd like to bring up.

The image is of my copy of Ulysses that I used for a seminar on the novel that I took in Dublin during my third year of college (yes, that's a World AIDS Day 1991 sticker on it, too--that was going on when I was there). The book itself has, among people who have not read it, a reputation for being difficult, dense and not easily accessible. This is partially deserved because it is written in a highly experimental style; but it's also somewhat overstated, and it's unfortunate that casual readers are warded away from it as a result. It's a lively, inventive piece of fiction, and it should be fun, not a chore.

The concept of the book is a sort of retelling of Homer's The Odyssey, but with the events being the experiences of a common man in Dublin during one single day of his life, June 16 1904. The date is now celebrated in Dublin with a whole host of Ulysses-related events such as public readings and pub crawls. It's also great fun to walk the streets and visit the locales of the novel. I think it is incredibly cool that somewhere on Earth a sort of holiday has arisen around a book, and that regular everyday people have so much fun with something that is often relegated to the rarified air of college English departments. 

Thinking about Bloomsday reminded me of something else: during the months I spent in England and Ireland, it seemed to me that the British and Irish people were, on average, much better casual readers of books than Americans. At bus-stops, aboard the Tube trains, in parks, in cafes, in pubs, all over the place it seemed common to see people of all ages and walks of life with books in their hands in a way that just doesn't seem to happen as much in the States.  Sure, one can spot readers here and there, and probably more frequently in the country's more literate cities, but it just doesn't seem like a habit that many people are in. Numbers bear that out if one looks at book sales figures. Anecdotally, I can say that I am usually the only person doing it in waiting-room type situations. This would be disappointing enough, but there is apparently another quirk about the American reading of books that doesn't seem to be a problem in the British Isles: American males read much, much less than females. 

Why would this be?  I recently listened to a segment on one of the NPR shows--don't remember which--where this subject was being discussed and the person being interviewed discussed how it is evidently very common for American men not to be comfortable with reading books as a sufficiently "manly" activity, tend not to model it as a desirable behavior in their sons, and generally don't cultivate it as a lifelong habit. I do not know where this bizarre cultural quirk comes from. It may just be residue of the country's historical bent toward anti-intellectualism and distrust of "know-it-alls." Sitting with a book may seem too unlike the things we are supposed to be into like football, hunting, spitting, scratching and other brawny activities. I don't know. But if this is true that the typical American male doesn't think reading is masculine enough, then the typical American male needs to get his stupid head out of his ass and stop right this minute teaching that dumb bias to the next generation of American men. I assume that I am preaching to the choir here. I doubt anyone who is not a reader of books is reading this blog. But still, I'd wish for any fathers who may be reading this--especially fathers of boys--to model for your children the value of reading for their long term intellectual development and for simple pleasure in life. is a scientific fact that guys who read books are, on average, hotter than ones who don't.

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Anonymous said...

I've been edging toward reading Ulyses, so this post may be my tipping point once I'm done with the Mieville book and The Yiddish Policeman's Union.

I've always been a reader and model that behavior for the girls. All but the 18yo are voracious readers. I feel sorry for ppl who don't read for pleasure, even if it's not fiction...

In the lunch room at work each day there is me and an old lady reading, and that's it. As far as I'm concerned, she and I am the cool ones. ;)


Christopher Fletcher said...

If you do decide to take up Ulysses, make sure to find the edition that I am showing in the picture or one like it--"The Corrected Text" or some such thing is what it should it say, because there are some older editions probably still floating around that have missing, censored or inaccurately reproduced segments. Other Joyce that's worth reading would be the short stories collected as The Dubliners. There is also his last major work, the novel Finnegan's Wake, which I have found to be entirely unreadable. I decided years ago not to feel bad or dumb that I can't get into Wake after I learned that a lot of Joyce's literary contemporaries felt the same way about it.

Brandon said...

Crumbs, now I have to at least attempt both of them. :)

Christopher Fletcher said...

Evidently Samuel Delany dug Finnegan's Wake, or at least its device of making the story circular and beginning and ending with the same sentence. DHALGREN, as you may recall, ENDS with "Waiting here, away from the terrifying weaponry, out of the halls of vapor and light, beyond holland and into the hills, I have come [and BEGINS with...] to would the autumnal city." Similarly WAKE ends "A way a lone a last a loved a long the [BEGINS...] rivverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs."


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