Saturday, 18 October 2014

5 Pieces of Advice for Reading, Understanding & Enjoying James Joyce

I'm currently studying a modern Irish literature module, and I'm enjoying every moment of it. The last two weeks have been spent studying W.B. Yeats (on Thursday I submitted a critical analysis on "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death"), but this week I progressed to James Joyce. I've never read Joyce in an academic setting before, and I thought it could go one of two ways: it could help me to enjoy Joyce's writing more, or it could simply make it less fun. I'm pleased to say it was the latter.

The selected book was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a book I devoured as a teenager. In our seminar spent discussing the book, however, I realised that not all fellow-students were as keen on Joyce's writing. We discussed our first impressions of reading Joyce, and the class was divided: while half of us couldn't get enough of Joyce's groundbreaking style, at least as many people couldn't get into it at all.

The class soon developed into what the lecturer neatly termed a "Joyce self-help session", and we agreed upon five main ideas to make James Joyce more accessible to read. If you're curious, read on!

James Joyce with Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare & Co Paris, 1920.

1. Start small

Some of Joyce's finest writing can be found in Dubliners, his short story collection, and it's the least daring of his books. Immerse yourself in the world of Dublin and savour the final lines of "The Dead". Enjoying James Joyce doesn't mean battling through Finnegans Wake.

2. Get an audiobook

Joyce is wonderful to listen to, and you could say his books are better heard than read. Get an audiobook - the free LibriVox recording of Portrait is great - and let the words flow over you.

3. Don't worry too much about details (or understanding everything)

One of my fellow students suggested that there are two ways to read Joyce: understanding all the little details and intricacies below the surface, or allowing yourself a 'superficial' reading that doesn't question too much. I've only really done the latter so far in my Joyce journey, and I think it's helped me to gain a really good basic understanding of each book I've read (and enjoyed, too).

4. Joyce goes well with whisky

My lecturer recently admitted that one of her best experiences reading Joyce happened when she was in bed with fever...and a bottle of whisky. If you enjoy a nightcap, combine it with Joyce's writing and you won't find yourself preoccupied with the little details, that's for sure.

5. Develop a lifelong relationship

I started reading Joyce a few years ago, and I'm so enjoying adding layers to my reading as I get older. When I first read Portrait, I could relate to Stephen's shyness during his school years. On my recent reading, however, I've been drawn to his search for meaning and creativity. It's exciting to think what my interpretations will be like in years to come.

My advice for reading Joyce is similar to that for reading Tolstoy, although Joyce's writing comes with its characteristic modernist style. It's easy to feel put off by this, and Joyce isn't for everyone, but I'm hoping these ideas will provide guidance for those who wish to give his books a go.

Have you read Joyce before? Is it on your literary bucket list?

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Lee-Anne (Lily Oak Books) said...

Hello, Lucy! I am back and so happy to read about your Irish Literature course. I was lucky enough to enjoy a similar course at uni and it was the favourite of my entire undergrad. It spawned an intense interest in the country and lead to an extended excursion to the country for four months. I am fascinated by all things Irish :). Joyce is definitely an author with whom you can grow. I would love to hear more!

Brian Joseph said...

Great advice. I do like number 4 the best!

Felicia said...

I think starting with Dubliners is sound advice! That's what I did. Right now I'm reading "The Most Dangerous Book" by Kevin Birmingham. It's been very interesting so far, and I believe it will help me get through Ulysses.

tolstoytherapy said...

It's definitely a great snippet of wisdom!

tolstoytherapy said...

Thank you, Felicia! The Kevin Birmingham book sounds like great reading - I must give it a go. Dubliners is such a beautiful, memorable collection...and Ulysses is certainly a landmark. I wonder how my impressions of it will change as I re-read it a few more times in future - I'm looking forward to finding out!

tolstoytherapy said...

Hi, Lee-Anne! I hope you're well, enjoying the change of season, and reading lots. It's great you studied such a similar course - I'm so glad I chose it for my final year! I've never been to Dublin, but I'd love to go. It would certainly be a very literary (and Joycean) inspired trip ;) I'll definitely be writing more about the course as it progresses - I foresee lots of exciting reading and discussions ahead! Hoping you're keeping well, Lucy.

Lee-Anne (Lily Oak Books) said...

Thank you, Lucy! Yes, I am well. Very well indeed. Thank you for asking. Making up for lost time in the Enjoying Life category which is wonderful, but has eaten in to my reading time. I'm not complaining :) There are seasons in our life for everything, and as the Arctic temperatures settle in I find myself delving into my bookshelf more frequently these days. No doubt the urge to write about it will return but I'm giving myself a break until the spirit moves me. Take care, Lucy! And thank you for our continued inspiration.