13 Tools To Help You Finally Tackle ‘Ulysses’

Happy Bloomsday, readers! Today we celebrate the meanderings of one Leopold Bloom, protagonist and heart of James Joyce’s Ulysses, in a single day across Dublin.

I decided to read Ulysses while I was living in Ireland, having just consumed some complimentary Guinness at the end of Dublin’s Guinness factory tour. As I walked, slightly tipsy, across the cobblestones of the city, I experienced a very drunken sense that I deeply understood where this famous novel was coming from — so it was time for me to read it. Later that day, I bought a thick, annotated copy at the Dublin Writers Museum, promptly spilled an entire bottle of Fresca on it, and had to let it dry out (no easy feat in damp Ireland). Thankfully, since it was so thick, my copy absorbed the fake sugar and became readable again, if still a bit soggy, in no time. This crisis averted, I then read Ulysses slowly, over a period of months, and enjoyed it very much.

The moral of this tale, of course, is simply this: any fool can read Ulysses, despite its rumored impenetrability, given the right amount of determination and the proper resources. So, with that as inspiration, here are a few tools to guide you on your way into the thick, allusion-rife text of ribaldry, cleverness, humanity, and pathos.

Classic commentary:

James Joyce’s Ulysses by Stuart Gilbert is the definitive classic text, the original companion. Scholars also cite the Don Gifford annotation, Allusions in Ulysses by Weldon Thornton (which lists the many cultural references in the book), and Dublin’s Joyce by Hugh Kenner, which focuses more on the setting of the work.

More recent works include Daniel Schwartz’s Reading Joyce’s Ulysses, which brings feminism and postcolonialism into the discussion, and James Joyce and the Difference of Language, which Flavorwire’s Jonathon Sturgeon notes is “poststructuralist Joyce.”

Mapping the novel:

Readers are convinced that understanding the layout of Dublin is key to understanding the novel. With that in mind, check out Vladimir Nabokov’s hand-drawn map, a London Underground-style map, and the project Walking Ulysses, an absolutely incredibly resource that allows you to virtually walk the path of the novel through today’s Dublin by clicking on a series of buttons and maps. It serves as its own kind of annotation, too, if you don’t want to purchase a dusty book of commentary.

The new media experience:

Frank Delaney’s Re: Joyce is a podcast that makes its way through the book, one small piece by one small piece. It’s going to take 22 years to complete the entire project, apparently, but it can guide readers through some of the early chapters.

For those who like to hear the language, there’s a free audiobook. For those who need a visual aid, Ulysses Seen by Robert Berry reimagines the book as a graphic novel — it was even deemed too risqué for Apple’s platforms, in an echo of the early censorship battles the novel itself faced. And for the super-abbreviated version, this site with 18 basic cartoons summarizes the novel’s main action points.

And finally, a lesson from Marilyn Monroe, who read the book the way many true fans do — by dipping in and out of it, almost as though it were a book of poetry. As Eve Arnold, who shot Monroe with the book, and in a bathing suit, later said: She said she loved the sound of it and would read it aloud to herself to try to make sense of it — but she found it hard going. She couldn’t read it consecutively.”

It turns out, of course, that the sound of the language is one of the most important aspects of the book. So maybe you can throw the tools aside and just listen to yourself reading. That’s a time-honored way of entering Ulysses. Or you can just wait until the planned video game hits consoles in a few years.