Bloomsday Honors Book No One Reads

NPR has an amusing bit on “Morning Edition” by Rob Gifford on Bloomsday, the annual festival wherein “Thousands of people descend on Dublin each June 16th to celebrate Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses by recreating the events in the book. The novel chronicles the passage of Leopold Bloom through Dublin on a single day — June 16, 1904 — a day, as Bloom says, that’s a ‘chapter of accidents.'”

The upshot is that the language and structure of the book is so inaccessible to modern English readers that most of the celebrants admit to never having read the book or to having tried but given up.  

Ulysses, it seems, is a book people want to have read.

There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose, and any excuse to travel to Dublin for a day of merrymaking is likely as good as any.  But it’s an amusing concept, nonetheless.

What other books fall into this category?

In “Born Yesterday,” Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America was famously revealed to be such a book.  The Bible, perhaps?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. John Burgess says:

    I don’t know what you’re talking about, James!

    I have read–and continue to re-read–Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. I’ve read de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, but don’t re-read it. Two of my favorite books are the supposedly impenetrable Gravity’s Rainbow and V. by Thomas Pynchon.

  2. Tlaloc says:

    Anything by Ayn Rand I think would be high on the list. Naked Lunch. Don Quixote (I sawed through 1200 of the 1400 pages before I just could not force myself to go on, but maybe that’s just me).

  3. Eric Florack says:

    I’ve read de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Cervantes, and Rand, myself. (Come to think, I have Atlas in my Palm Pilot’s library.) I’ve been through the Bible several times, as well.

    I suspect the NPR bit was about making fun once more of the supposedly illiterate masses that don’t listen to NPR. That’s red meat to their rather limited audiences.

  4. Furhead says:

    I’ve read Atlas Shrugged, but how many times can you say the same thing? I can see why some people would bail on it. I think that last speech is something like 30 or 40 pages, IIRC.

    I tried reading Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses years ago but couldn’t handle the writing style.

  5. James Joyner says:

    I have read–and continue to re-read–Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake.

    But you’ve got an especial affinity for picking up foreign languages most don’t.

  6. Houston says:

    The Bible, perhaps?

    Really, the Bible? C’mon, James, was that necessary?

  7. […] course, it should be remembered that I’m a freak. So there’s […]

  8. PD Shaw says:

    The Sound and the Fury was a book that I found more difficult to read than Ulysses. I gave up on Faulkner about half way through it and thought I’d try again some day when I had time to read larger chunks at time. And time passes . . .

  9. Matthew Stinson says:

    I read Democracy in America a couple times along with other “great works” plus The Bible but found Ulysses to drag and drag — I know it’s an experience to read Joyce but it’s not an altogether pleasurable one.

  10. James Joyner says:

    Really, the Bible? C’mon, James, was that necessary?

    Heh. It’s gotta be the most purchased and least read book in history. I’m guessing the vast percentage of churchgoers have never read it cover-to-cover, having just memorized a few passages. (I’ve read quite a bit of both Testaments but never made it to the end of either one without skipping ahead.)

  11. jimT says:

    I found Ulysses to be utterly unreadable. It is difficult for me to believe that anyone not familiar with early 1900’s Irish slang can follow any of it. And those that do are dying off daily. It floors me that it continues to be listed as the ‘Greatest English Language Novel’. I can’t wait for the day when it is finally supplanted by a much more universal epic, namely ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’…

  12. jimT says:

    I found Ulysses to be utterly unreadable. Ii is difficult for me to believe that anyone not versed in early 1900’s Irish slang can follow any of it. And those that are are dying off daily. It floors me that it continues to be listed as the ‘Greatest English Language Novel’. I can’t wait for the day when it is finally supplanted by a much more universal epic, namely ‘The Hithchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’

  13. Benedict says:

    I seem to recall an experiment from a few years back where coupons for $20 (this was pre-Amazon, and all you had to do was take the coupon back to the bookstore and you got $20 on the spot) were placed inside Stephen Hawkings A Brief History of Time. Almost none were redeemed, even though the book was a significant best-seller. So you can add that to the bought / not read list.

  14. Benedict says:

    While I am loath to send traffic to the New York Times, my Binging around to see if I could find support for the anecdote I related about the Hawkings book I found this story, which is from 2 years ago and covers the exact same ground:

    Remembrance of Things Unread

  15. another matt says:

    I had to read the first page of Gravity’s Rainbow about 5 times because I kept losing the thread. That being said, after being lost for about 500 pages, I finally figured out the author’s style and the final half of the book was a much easier read. It still has one of the coolest names for a book that I have come across (ultimately, that’s what caught my eye in the first place).

  16. John Burgess says:

    More an affinity for words and etymologies than for languages per se.

    Pynchon is my favorite author and I had no trouble with Gravity’s Rainbow from the start. There are just so many intersections between my life and those of Pynchon’s characters that it feels as though I’m talking with close friends, if not myself.

    I have no use for doorstops like Jane Austen or Henry James, however. But William James? Well, that’s a whole ‘nother story…

  17. Brett says:

    My dad told me that Ulysses is much easier to get through if you listen to it on tape, rather than trying to struggle through the abominable prose.

    As for the Bible, I’ve basically read almost all of the New Testament, and I got into Leviticus in the Old Testament before I just gave up on it.