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.