5 tips for reading, understanding & enjoying James Joyce
I’m currently studying a modern Irish literature module, and I’m enjoying every moment of it. 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 me hate it. I’m pleased to say it was the former.
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!
How to read James Joyce
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 stunningly beautiful final lines of “The Dead”. Reading James Joyce doesn’t mean battling through Finnegans Wake.
2. Get an audiobook
Joyce’s writing 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 with Joyce’s writing
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. During my recent reading, however, I’ve been drawn to his search for meaning and creativity. It’s exciting to think about 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.
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