Last week, our family traveled to Ireland for my son's winter school break. while there, we took a walking tour of James Joyce's Dublin.
At the outset of the tour, the guide asked the group a question I had hoped to avoid: "So, what have you read of Joyce?"
I responded, somewhat abashedly, that I had read and admired Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist, but had read the first 50 pages or so of Ulysses perhaps 20 times without being able to go further. The guide laughed. "You're not alone in that," he said.
The tour was fascinating; our guide a storehouse of information about Joyce's personal life and his work. At one point I referred to him as a "Joyce scholar," and he corrected me. "I'm not a scholar, just an appreciator."
"But obviously, you know Ulysses backwards and forwards. Is this just a sideline, and you're really a dentist or something?"
He laughed. "The trick to understanding Ulysses is understanding Dublin. If you're not familiar with the city and its history, the references and associations will be lost on you. You feel like an outsider."
"That's exactly how I feel reading it--like there's a code that I can't crack!"
"Ah, but you can! All you need is the right guidebook."
Back at the Joyce Center, he helped me compile a list of books and web sites dedicated to helping readers decode the references in the book. "If you start when you get back, you should have it mastered well before Bloomsday," he assured me. "Then we'll get cracking on Finnegans Wake."
I don't feel ready to start a project of this magnitude. I'm behind in everything, and my TBR pile is approaching the ceiling. But I appreciate the reminders that mountains are composed of individual grains of soil, and that seemingly impossible journeys become possible through the extended hands of more experienced travelers.
Susan O'Doherty, Ph.D.,is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself,she specializes in issues affecting writers and other creative artists. She is the author of Getting Unstuck without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity(Seal, 2007). Her Career Coach column appears every Monday on Inside Higher Ed's Mama, Ph.D. blog, and she is a regular monthly panelist on Litopia After Dark. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.