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Celebrate Bloomsday by revisiting Ulysses, James Joyce’s triumph of dazzling wordplay

Annual Book Fair Billed As World's Best Held In New York City
Cities across the world celebrate Bloomsday in honor of James Joyce every year.
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Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Every year on June 16, James Joyce fans around the world celebrate Bloomsday. It’s the day on which Joyce’s Ulysses takes place, the day that begins with stately, plump Buck Mulligan coming from the stairhead, and ends with Molly Bloom’s ecstatic “yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Bloomsday is named after Leopold Bloom, Ulysses’s protagonist, and according to Joyce himself, unofficial Bloomsday celebrations began not long after Ulysses was published in 1922. In 1924 Joyce wrote to a friend about “a group of people who observe what they call Bloom’s day — 16 June. They sent me hortensias, white and blue, dyed” to match Ulysses’s white and blue cover.

The next recorded Bloomsday celebration came five years later. Since Ulysses takes place in 1904, June 16, 1929, was what Joyce thought of as the 25th anniversary of Bloomsday, although it had only been seven years since the book's publication. To mark the occasion, friends hosted Joyce and 30 others at a fancy luncheon in a French restaurant.

The first big public Bloomsday celebration took place in 1951, when some of Dublin’s literary elite — including the poet Patrick Kavanagh and the novelist Flann O'Brien — took a carriage ride around Dublin, visiting the sites of some of the novel’s most iconic scenes. (Some versions of this story end with the party falling apart halfway through because everyone was too drunk to continue.)

Nearly 20 years later, academics got in on the fun, with the first Joyce conference meeting in Dublin on June 16, 1967.

Now, Bloomsday celebrations are held in cities across the world every year, featuring readings, lectures, walking tours, even breakfasts. (Like Bloom himself, you too can start your day with kidneys to “give to [your] palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”)

But if you don’t want to leave your living room to celebrate Bloomsday, there’s one more thing you can do: Read Ulysses on your own.

Is Ulysses worth reading? It depends on who you ask.

Ulysses is a famously difficult work, more than 200,000 words long and densely packed with allusions and fragmented, hallucinatory language. Not everyone thinks it’s worth the trouble; the book has been called “an overwrought, overwritten epic of gratingly obvious, self-congratulatory, show-off erudition that, with its overstuffed symbolism and leaden attempts at humor, is bearable only by terminal graduate students who demand we validate the time they've wasted reading it” — and much worse.

Of course, it has also been named the best novel written in English since 1900, and described as “riotously funny, inventive, irreverent, yet serious,” “intoxicating,” “deeply humanistic,” and even “the best book you take to the beach this summer.”

My general feelings about Ulysses are probably most in line with what the New York Times said in its review of the novel in 1922: “It is likely that there is no one writing English today that could parallel Joyce's feat, and it is also likely that few would care to do it if they were capable.” Ulysses is inarguably a revolutionary artistic achievement, unmatched by anyone before or since — but I’ve never quite made up my mind on whether anyone should try.

If you read for story, it can be difficult to love Ulysses wholeheartedly

I read Ulysses in college like any dutiful English major, writing my papers with the help of an enormous book of annotations. I enjoyed the book and its ensuing coursework, but once I’d completed all my Ulysses-related assignments I had no plans to ever read the novel again. Instead, I pinned it to my bookshelf like a hunting trophy: See, this beast was difficult and dangerous, and I have conquered it. I have read the monster in its entirety.

For me, one of the chief joys of reading is the pleasure to be found in story, in narrative, in watching a coherent sequence of events take place and seeing how those events change the characters who experience them. I don’t mean that plot matters above all else — Leopold Bloom's plotless walk around Dublin in Ulysses could, in another writer’s hands, easily be a story. Even in a modernist writer’s hands. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, in which Mrs. Dalloway walks across London in long, immersive stream-of-consciousness, is a story: It is immersive, it is psychological, it shows how character shapes events and events shape character.

But story is exactly what Joyce wanted to smash into a million pieces. Ulysses has narrative, but only in kaleidoscopic fragments; it’s designed to frustrate the appetites that traditional narrative satisfies.

What it offers instead is manifold: the pleasures of allusion, of probing psychological insight, of extended bouts of wordplay.

But those are rather abstract pleasures, I thought as I shelved the book, cerebral rather than visceral — and there were so many other books I could turn to that offered all that and a satisfying narrative besides.

What I had already forgotten is how intoxicatingly playful Joyce’s language is. He piles syllables on top of one another in extravagant, musical heaps; it’s no wonder Ulysses evangelists will often encourage you to give it a try in audiobook form.

Ulysses’s greatest element is its gorgeous, unrivaled wordplay

Turn to a random page of Ulysses and pick a sentence. You will find something dazzling. Here’s what I landed on in my copy, on page 143:

His eyes unhungrily saw shelves of tins: sardines, gaudy lobsters’ claws. All the odd things people pick up for food. Out of shells, periwinkles with a pin, off trees, snails out of the ground the French eat, out of the sea with bait on a hook. Silly fish learn nothing in a thousand years. If you didn’t know risky putting anything into your mouth. Poisonous berries. Johnny Magories. Roundness you think good. Gaudy colour warns you off. One fellow told another and so on. Try it on the dog first. Led on by the smell or the look. Tempting fruit. Ice cones. Cream. Instinct. Orangegroves for instance. Need artificial irrigation. Bleibtrestrasse. Yes but what about oysters.

The way the thoughts and images speed up and tumble into one another, darting from the canned fish to foraging for food to fishing to poison, pausing briefly on biblical temptation, moving on to ice cream and oranges, and then redirecting: “Yes but what about oysters,” — it is so dense and so playful and so lovely. The language is almost tactile; you can roll the syllables in your mouth as you read it.

I still don’t know that I enjoy it the way I enjoy narrative. But once a year, on Bloomsday, it is good to pull Ulysses off the shelf and just wallow in the language for a while. I usually don’t try to read the whole novel, but I’ll savor an excerpt or two, and by the end of it maybe I think maybe I will Maybe.

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