safety in numbers

Early in my PhD years I really, really wanted to read James Joyce’s modern epic, Ulysses.  All the cool kids had already read it.  When they talked about it in class they would get a shifty look in their eyes, like they were suddenly distracted by the deep mysteries into which they’d been initiated but couldn’t possibly communicate to a non-Joycean.  Then I discovered that the International James Joyce Foundation holds its annual conferences in locations like Copenhagen and Monaco.

I grew desperate.  But I didn’t have time for Ulysses, not on top of my courseload.  Whenever I opened the book on the commute home or at bedtime, I was too tired to make much sense of who was speaking, or what s/he was saying, or why.

Then a friend of a friend invited me to join a Ulysses reading group.  Every Sunday afternoon we met in a derelict pub to discuss a chapter of the novel.  She’d chosen the group members carefully: we were relative strangers with nothing in common but a postgrad-level curiosity about this seminal text.  Besides the two of us there was a Women’s Studies MA student, a medical resident, and a guy who’d been working on a Heidegger dissertation for seven years.

We were shamelessly nerdy and competitive about our quest for understanding Joyce’s work.  Having found the perfect excuse to make time for Ulysses, I also made hundreds of margin notes and read a couple of scholarly articles each week.  And I wasn’t the only one:  the group’s discussions were heated and routinely went past three hours.

Early on I realized that the cool kids’ shifty-eyed response to my questions about Ulysses was evasion, that they hadn’t had a clue what the book was all about.  When our group finished the novel, I knew it like I’d known very few books before.  The experience ruined me for the following term’s Joyce seminar, too, since I’d read most of the secondary-sources list already (I did a directed reading course instead).

A few weeks after adjourning, the reading group picked another book and started all over again.  This time, we decided, we would tackle Heidegger’s Being and Time.

2 thoughts on “safety in numbers

  1. Sarah! I randomly came across this post when I looked up your site after you “friended” me. I so miss those days of the Ulysees reading group. We were so awesome-ly nerdy. The guy finished his dissertation on Heidegger and is a professor at King’s College now! I am a high school drama teacher. We never did get to Being and Time. The group I was with got through Kafka, Paradise Lost and Ulysees.


    1. I was hoping you’d see this post! And that’s what prompted me to ‘friend’ you–when your name came back to me through the fog of time…
      High school drama! That’s very exciting–and I want to talk to you, sometime, about getting student writing onto Literary Type! I miss those days, too (hmm…maybe there’s another reading group in our future someday…?)!


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