In June, I wrote about a particularly difficult book that I’ve been struggling to read for the better part of a year.
As of this writing, I’m proud to report that I am over 400 pages into Ulysses. That’s much further than I made it last summer, but I’m not out of the woods yet. I still have over 300 pages to go. I’m doggedly reading at least ten pages a day. But I can’t stop asking myself why, exactly, am I doing this?
More often than not, I have no clue what’s happening on the page. I don’t have the benefit of an enthusiastic Joyce professor, or a solid understanding of his style. With the help of the Shmoop analysis, I’m understanding the passages a little better than I would without any help.
Don’t get me wrong; there are times when the reading is immensely enjoyable. When he’s lucid, Joyce’s prose is truly masterful. There are sections that I could read all day over and over, just to enjoy his turn of phrase and the lyricism of his sentences. The parts I love, I really, really love.
But the rest of it? No clue what’s happening.
The entire experience has led me to reflect on why we read, and why reading matters. More often than not, I would say that the main reason people read is for the enjoyment of it. We know that reading brings health, happiness, and can even stave off Alzheimer’s. It increases our knowledge, improves our empathy, and enhances imagination. So what do we with books that we don’t find enjoyable?
We all have them. That dreaded TBR pile of classics, non-fiction, memoirs or novels suggested by friends or assigned by teachers. We just know we aren’t going to love them, but we try them anyway. We want to humor someone, or we don’t want to be left out of a conversation. Is forcing yourself to read a good thing or a bad thing?
I had a friend in college that bragged he always finished a book he started. You never know how a book is going to turn out until it’s done, he said. I had “paused” more books than I cared to admit, and his comments rankled. I felt inadequate. For years, I heard his voice ringing in my ears as I forced myself to finish books I hated. I told myself that, like cherry cough syrup, they were “good for me.” More recently, though, I’ve softened this position. I started to heed the advice of others who say that life is too short to read books you don’t enjoy. There are plenty of books out there to love – why waste your time on ones you don’t?
More recently, though, I’ve softened this position. I’ve started to heed the advice of others who say that life is too short to read books you don’t enjoy. There are plenty of books out there to love – why waste your time on ones you don’t?
I’ve thought about these two extremes a lot lately, as I read Ulysses. I wouldn’t say I’m enjoying the book, necessarily. Does that mean I’m only reading it to say I conquered it? Do I seek my own bragging rights? Is that a bad thing?
On the other hand, I remind myself that Ulysses is constantly touted as one of the most influential and important books of the twentieth century, if not the most important. I truly believe there’s a lot to be gained from sticking it out. If anything, I’ll have a better understanding of literary history. Or not.
I don’t know, I guess I haven’t really answered my own questions. I’m not sure why I’m still reading Ulysses, or why I wanted to read it in the first place. “Because it’s there” doesn’t really feel like an adequate answer anymore, but stopping doesn’t make sense either. Or maybe it does. I have no way of telling until I finish.
What books are like this for you? Are there books that you dreaded reading but did anyway, just for the experience? Are there books you never finished that you regret giving up on? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!