Today marks the 130th birthday of James Joyce, one of the most lauded and influential writers of the 20th century. Joyce is one of those guilt-producing authors — you know you’re supposed to have read at least one of his important works, but things — life, contemporary novelists, the difficulty of his prose — keep getting in the way. So you put it off, and whenever his name comes up you must either admit you’ve never read him or just nod along with a glazed look in your eye and hope no one questions you. We understand how you feel, and to help you out on a day sure to be filled with Joyce-centric coffee shop conversations (we imagine), we’ve put together a handy guide to pretending you’ve read the author’s major works. After all, who ever said Cliffs Notes were just for college students? Click through to get schooled, and prepare to dazzle at your next literary event.
What You Need to Know: Joyce’s first published book of prose, this collection of 15 short stories depicts the life of the Irish middle class in Dublin at the start of the 20th century. The stories are all quite naturalistic, the scenes expertly described, with much attention paid to the geography of the city. The stories are arranged in a loose trajectory from tales about youth to tales about age, culminating in Joyce’s most famous story, The Dead.
What to Talk About: You can talk forever about Joyce’s love of the epiphany as literary device — in each of these stories, the characters build towards a supreme but often painful moment of understanding or awareness that changes the way they see themselves or their world. For example, in The Dead, when Gretta hears the song that sends her into a nostalgic longing for her childhood sweetheart Michael Furey, her minor epiphany sets off her husband Gabriel’s major one, and he basically sits and thinks about his wife, love, death, himself, isolation, and all manner of things for the rest of the story. Then, you can transition into sharing some of your own personal epiphanies with your impressed conversation partners, who will likely do the same in return.