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How do you read?

I’m a critic. It’s my job to praise or condemn books. But there are times when praise just gets in the way. I remember back in the mid-80s everyone was going on about Neuromancer by William Gibson; in the end they praised it so much that I couldn’t bring myself to read it. In fact it was ten years before I got round to reading the book, and when I did I could see the historical importance but I just wasn’t as blown away by the book as everyone else. It couldn’t live up to the hype.

Well I’m facing a similar problem now, though on a slightly grander scale. One of the great writers I’ve never read (there are always more great writers I’ve not read than I have read) is James Joyce, so I thought maybe now is the time to start. I began with Dubliners, and, well, it’s all very good, but why is it not thrilling me? Okay, I’ve not got as far as ‘The Dead’ which is the story everyone singles out for praise, but I’ve started to get nervous about getting there. Is it just that my expectations are so high? Or is it that the collection, in the very act of breaking new ground 100 years ago, became the model that so many others have followed that it no longer can appear new? And in either case, how on earth do you read Joyce today?

15 thoughts on “How do you read?

  1. Hey Paul,

    I’ve said this elsewhere, and I mean it somewhat polemically, but there’s a way in which I don’t think Joyce matters much these days—certainly not as much as he used to. He’s historically important, and maybe certain lit people will look at you funny if you say you haven’t read him, but a lot of people no longer read him, and I don’t think he exerts much direct influence anymore. I don’t feel much pressure from the culture to read his books, not the way I do to read Cormac McCarthy or DFW or Zadie Smith (to pick three names from many possible ones).

    So I’d say people should read Joyce if they want to understand more about the history of a certain kind of writing, and/or if they enjoy him. Otherwise, there are plenty of other things out there to read, high, low, important, unimportant. And maybe Joyce won’t be important in 50—100 years; who knows? (And, of course, that might make him all the more valuable to those who want to read people who aren’t popular/important.)

    Aristotle looms large in Western civilization, arguably having had a bigger singular effect than anyone save perhaps Plato, and most people I know haven’t read a word by him. Nor do they feel any pressure, I think, to read him. The same is true today of, say, Thomas Aquinas. And many others. And countless other important writers (authors whom I think important) were never important to begin with.

    I say all of this as someone who used to read Joyce a lot, and who at the time thought him very important and influential, and who still enjoys his work now, even though he’s not a writer I think about all that often anymore, if that makes sense. Influences and pleasures come and go…

    Cheers,
    Adam

    1. Yeah, I’ve read a lot of Plato, not so much Aristotle, but I can’t help but be familiar with a lot of what Aristotle did. After a certain period there’s a certain osmosis sets in. You don’t have to have read the book to know the book. That may be my problem with Joyce: in a sense I’ve already read the books.

  2. I love Joyce.

    So glad to hear that you’re reading Joyce, Paul, and that you’re reading Dubliners. Knowing the breadth of your reading, I’m actually not surprised that you’re finding the stories underwhelming. The ephiphanic moment, which all of these stories lead to, is something we see in so many mainstream examples of the story. And since Joyce’s deployment of the convention was so skillful, we can probably give him at least partial credit for inspiring countless other writers, e.g., Anderson, Cheever, Updike, Oates, etc., to use it as their template. The influence of Dubliners is so pervasive that coming to it late in the game of massive reading is probably going to be somewhat of a letdown. That said, there’s so much to enjoy about the collection, one of which is how Joyce seamlessly manages its tripartite structure of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Also, as with everything Joyce, allusions to mythology abound. And then there are the lovely understated sentences.

    Considering how much Joyce’s work changed, I think it’s funny how all those abovementioned writers glommed onto only one aspect of Joyce’s writing. But even though each of his projects is certainly different from each other, numerous obsessions, like guilt and redemption, music, mythology, are still threaded throughout. All this to say that I think the best way to read Joyce is in the context of all of his other books.

    1. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the stories, but that I think I expected more of them. But as I said to Adam, they already feel familiar. The structure, the epiphany, are very nicely handled as you say, and the sense of place is wonderful, but I found the characterisation often a little flat (which is what surprised me most).

  3. I had the same experience in 1971. I stopped about where you are now, and went straight to Ulysses. Many years later I backtracked, and had no regrets.

  4. I’m inclined to agree with Adam’s assessment of Joyce’s importance – and I speak as both a fan and one of those ‘certain lit people’ who might look askance at your not having read anything by him before!! I think the best way to appreciate what Joyce is dong in Dubliners, though, is to read some heavy late 19th century/fin de siecle stuff first. I’d probably recommend Henry James – let’s go for The Bostonians to cover both the descriptions of the city and the treatment of types in varied relation to ideas of belonging and resisting… It brings home the genius of Joyce’s concision. That said, the first time I read Dubliners I immediately followed it with Ben Okri’s Incidents at the Shrine. Suddenly Joyce seemed prolix and florid…

    1. Great points, David.

      James—now there’s a great writer who’s no longer considered important! I rarely meet anyone who’s read him… It happens to most, I suppose.

      I’ve been interested for a while now in the culture’s insistence on constant newness, especially at the expense of “the classics.” It’s as prevalent in the arts as it is on Madison Avenue. We live in a culture (I think this is true in the UK as well, although maybe less so than in the US) where people always want (or are instructed to want) a new flavor, color, author, with every passing season. This tendency is at least 100 years old by now: the Modernists themselves said “Make it new.” Joyce is a casualty, in a sense, of his own generation’s restlessness.

    2. Oh not James, for heaven’s sake. His sentences, lord help us, his sentences! I remember once going to Lamb House in Rye and in a glass cabinet there they had two pages of a handwritten letter James had written to a friend. The sentence began before the start of the first page and hadn’t ended by the end of the second page. And yet, at the same time that James was being to interminably prolix, H.G. Wells was writing the sort of short, tight sentences that we tend to imagine only came in with Hemingway.

      1. No, James is great! And those long sentences are poised to make a comeback…

        Your comment about Wells/Hemingway reminds me of this idea: too often critics make the mistake of thinking influences confined to only one genre. Wells influenced C.S. Lewis and Jack Vance, Hemingway influenced Donald Barthelme; everyone keeps very nicely to their own corners of the schoolyard. No amount of pretending will erase the fact that it doesn’t really work that way.

        I’d love to see a book that focuses entirely on pop art’s influence on “high” art. It could even just be lists of what genre fiction “the great writers” most enjoyed. For instance, we know that Eliot loved Sherlock Holmes novels, and that Barthelme adored Captain Blood. I’d be most curious to learn what Hemingway thought of Wells, if he ever read him, etc.

        A literary criticism that ignores the popular arts can’t fully understand literature.

        1. And Wittgenstein used to spend all his free time watching cowboy movies. Always sitting in the middle of the front row so the screen more than filled his vision.

          I have a major problem with the whole idea of pop art and ‘high’ art. Who says that Sherlock Holmes isn’t high art?

          As for those long sentences – they can come back without me. Okay, my sentences can drag on a bit sometimes (and I do like to add in the occasional parenthetical aside (and sometimes even parentheses within parentheses)) but when I’m reading I do still basically like concise sentences that know what they are saying right from the start and don’t change their mind half way through (or even change their mind two or three times and then end back where they started, which is the case with James); I have no problem with long paragraphs, of course, but for me control of the sentence indicates control of the story, and if you let the story get out of hand, then I think it suggests that more than just the sentence is out of hand; oh and I’d better add in a full stop now or you’ll start thinking I’m channelling James.

          1. Oh, totally, I completely agree with you, and disagree with many about the high/low art distinction. I was referring to “high art” instead the way that other people see it. I consider much, much “low art” to be “high,” and actually never use the term “low art” myself; I think it’s horrendous.

            There is such a thing as pop art, though, I think: the art that is popular, or that aims for a wide audience. For some reason people often think that it therefore can’t be “high” or good or whatever. They’re probably wrong about many other things as well.

  5. Expectations also corrupt our reading experience when tackling works by an author with one ultra famous work. many people have an assumption of Nabokov based entirely on Lolita (or on films of it) that bears little relevance to the game playing of Pale Fire or the comic Pnin.

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