From Charles Martin Reid
Reading Ulysses was a big undertaking for me. I always felt intimidated by it, and didn't jump in and start reading it until this year. It turned out to be a lot different than I thought, primarily because I didn't know much about it. It was also a lot funnier than I was anticipating.
I read the Vintage International Edition, ISBN 0679722769, which has a nice foreword and information on the decision of US District Court Judge John Woolsey lifting the U.S. ban on Ulysses in 1933 (originally put into place due to charges of obscenity - due to Chapter 13, see Favorite Chapters section below).
Each chapter covers about 1 hour during the course of Bloomsday, 16 June 1904. Each chapter is slightly, or significantly, different from others. Each chapter has an analogous episode in Homer's The Odyssey (hence the episode/chapter names). Joyce uses a lot of creative methods for narrating the story; typically, each chapter will employ a unique narrating technique, although some chapters will employ multiple techniques.
Joyce said the following about Ulysses:
I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality.
- James Joyce
This gives the (correct) impression that there is way more to Ulysses than the average reader can glean. And while it's an enjoyable read without understanding all of the references, it's even better when you do. Fortunately for us "normal people," there are several excellent guides to use to help navigate Ulysses and help understand, first, what the heck is going on, and second, all the stuff that only a professor would catch.
Listed, in order of increasing level of complexity of interpretation:
- Wikipedia page on Ulysses
- Gives very brief chapter-by-chapter summaries
- Gives interesting supplemental information/links
- Guide to Ulysses
- This gives a lot of useful information, and is a great starting point
- Overall summary, characters, and important themes in the book are given
- Chapter-by-chapter summaries and interpretations are given, which is very useful for:
- Having a general idea of what is happening, or what is going to happen, in a chapter before/during reading of the chapter
- Understanding how the events of the chapter relate to Homer's The Odyssey
- Knowing what kind of narration techniques Joyce is using
- Highly recommend as a reading guide for most of the book
- Don Gilbert's James Joyce's Ulysses
- Provides a schema for understanding each chapter (see Gilbert schema for Ulyssses (wikipedia))
- Gives an interpretation of each chapter's complex themes, how it relates to The Odyssey, the origin of various ideas, and insights about Joyce's person that help to shed more light on Ulysses
- Don Gifford's Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce's Ulysses
- A fantastic and encyclopedic collection of footnotes for Ulysses
- Exhaustively explains all of the references to people, places, works of literature, Irish songs, operas, Catholicism, Judaism, etc etc etc.
- Slows down the process of reading significantly, but has great potential to enrich the understanding of Ulysses
In addition to these guides, I also used Librivox's audio book version of Ulysses for some chapters. Some were outstanding, fantastic, and/or hilarious; some were terrible and/or boring. Some are in-between.
- Libribox's Ulysses: http://librivox.org/ulysses-by-james-joyce/
- Best chapters are:
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 4
- Chapter 5
- Chapter 18 (but sped up 50%)
- Sped-up part 1 available here: http://files.charlesmartinreid.com/ulysses_18a.mp3
- Sped-up part 2 available here: http://files.charlesmartinreid.com/ulysses_18b.mp3
My reading technique was different from chapter to chapter. Sometimes I would read about the chapter in Sparknotes or Gilbert before I started reading the chapter. Other times I would read the chapter, then consult Gilbert and Sparknotes. Sometimes I would have Gifford open side-by-side with the corresponding chapter in Ulysses. Other times I wouldn't consult it at all.
For a few chapters, I listened to the audio book while I read the chapter. Whether this worked well or not depended entirely upon whether that chapter of the audio book was read well. It slows down the pace of reading, but if the quality of the reading is very high, it is totally worth it. (And if the recording is poor quality, you get tired of listening to it after a few minutes and just turn it off and read the chapter on your own.)
My recommendation is to try different ways of reading a chapter, figure out what works for you, then do that.
Sparknotes and Gilbert both lend themselves well to being read before the chapter is read (as sometimes it's not entirely clear what's happening in a chapter, and so it's useful to have read a summary). Sparknotes gives a summary and interpretation, so you know the general storyline of the chapter; Gilbert quotes extensively from the chapter, so certain pieces from the chapter will stand out when you read it.
I think Gifford is particularly useful for certain chapters - in particular, Chapter 15 - but most of the time impedes reading unnecessarily, and is best consulted for obscure references that don't make a whole lot of sense (as understanding them can lead to a better understanding of the context), or on a second reading of the chapter.
My favorite chapters are Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 8, Chapter 10, Chapter 11, Chapter 12, Chapter 13, and Chapter 18.
Chapters 4, 5, and 8 provide hilarious stream-of-consciousness narratives of Leopold Bloom. Chapter 8 focuses on some of Leopold's peculiar behavior, and on food, which is interesting.
Chapters 10 and 11 provide stream-of-consciousness narratives from non-Bloom characters, including a priest and two barmaids, which makes for some funny monologues/dialogues.
Chapter 12 has a really funny narrative technique that, over the course of the chapter, parodies various styles of writing, ranging from epic Old English Beowulf-like descriptions of "heroic" characters to Biblical genealogy parody to a lawyer's courtroom legal-speak.
Chapter 13 is the chapter that got Ulysses banned in the United States for obscenity for 11 years due to a narration of masturbation.
Chapter 18 is probably the funniest, and the closest to actual stream-of-consciousness of any of the chapters. It is a huge contrast to the other stream-of-consciousness chapters in the book, to a degree that's hilarious. I sped up the Librivox version of Chapter 8 50% and listened to it that way, since I imagined in my mind, while I read the chapter, the voice speaking these thoughts speaking them very fast and all in one breath. Reading and listening to this very fast version was very funny.
My least favorite chapters, hands-down, were Chapters 14 and 15.
Chapter 14 was difficult and not terribly interesting.
Chapter 15 read very slowly. It was filled with obscure references, and I spent most of my reading time referring to Gifford and figuring out what the hell Joyce was even talking about. It turns out that the chapter starts to make a lot more sense if you get what Joyce is referring to, but the pace slowed significantly, and it took almost 3 weeks to get through half the chapter using this way.
My other least-favorite chapters were Chapters 1 and 2 (because they don't seem to fit with the rest of the novel).
See Ulysses (Wikipedia).