The Breakfast Table

More Ulysses

Dear Marjorie,

It’s great to have you back for all sorts of reasons, but one our readers can appreciate is that I get my italics back! While you were away in Princeton I couldn’t send you attachments (the technical reasons are too boring to go into), hence couldn’t do italics. That explains why I was suddenly putting book titles in quotes, and other typographical oddities. (Occasionally a kind editor at Slate would put italics in for me, but it just isn’t the same as putting them in oneself.)

Slow news day, it seems to me, yet again. The only story that keeps zipping along lately is Nigeria, where they’re going to have elections, according to yesterday’s papers.

My new hero is Alain de Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, who has a wonderful op-ed piece in today’s New York Times about my favorite new topic: Ulysses guilt. (To help new readers catch up: I’ve assumed the role of yuppie revival minister, urging sophisticated Slate readers to come forth and admit they’ve never read Ulysses, which Random House selected this week as the greatest English-language novel of the 20th century.) Lest I invite the scorn of Joyce enthusiasts (who I suspect have a heavy presence on the web), let me make clear that I mean no malice toward James Joyce or Ulysses, a presumably great book that I happen never to have read. Like many people who never read Ulysses, I did read Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist, and am happy to concede they reside amidst the greatest literature of the century (or at least that small portion of same that I have read). My purpose is not to tell people it’s dumb to read Ulysses, whose claim to greatness long predates this week’s Random House stunt. Rather, my aim is to liberate those of us who’ve felt compelled for years to keep secret our ignorance of Joyce’s most-admired work. A number of people I’ve heard from seem to be taking a self-justifying tack, as in, “No, I haven’t read Ulysses, because I bet it really sucks.” This attitude doesn’t work any better than pretending you’ve read Ulysses. What I want to hear the people say is: “Okay, I haven’t read Ulysses and I’m really embarrassed about it. Recognizing that the first step toward recovery is admitting I have a problem, I will now acknowledge my ignorance openly. The next step is to read Ulysses. The following step after that is to like it, hate it, or be indifferent toward it.”

DeBotton doesn’t say precisely this in his op-ed today, but he does say many refreshing things about how impossible it is to read every book that comes recommended, even the “great” ones, and how “There’s something terrifying about a book whose greatness we will have no choice but to accept.” We should all be free to like or dislike books on our own, he says, citing Dr. Johnson’s dislike of Tristram Shandy and Maria Vargos Llosa’s dislike of, well, Ulysses. But you can’t make up your mind on your own unless you read the goddamned things.

Did you see a big elevator tower constructing Conde Nast’s new headquarters collapsed, killed an elderly woman, and basically shut down Times Square yesterday? This is a category of story we provincials call the “Aren’t You Glad You Don’t Live In New York” piece. They’ve been far less frequent lately, as the New York story has shifted to, “Don’t You Wish You Lived in New York?” This shift is especially evident when one considers the Washington Post’s New York coverage. For years, the job of the Washington Post New York correspondent was to reassure status-anxious Washingtonians that they were better off living in sleepy D.C. Howie Kurtz, when covering New York City for the Post, wrote a cover story in The New Republic that was triumphantly headlined, “NYC, RIP.” But lately, of course, city services and crime in the District have spun wildly out of control, while New York has miraculously become a Model City. (I’m sure that’s exaggerated; when I was in New York recently I witnessed zero evidence of the Giuliani New Civility.) Anyway, now the Post’s New York correspondent, Blaine Harden, devotes much of his time to explaining the NYC miracle to demoralized, crime-and-government-inefficiency-ravaged District residents. Since I left you with the Post this morning, dear wife, I haven’t yet had a chance to see how Harden handled the Conde Nast disaster.



P.S. Margo Howard, sometime contributor to Slate and The New Republic, and, if memory serves, an old college girlfriend to Marty Peretz. Never read Ulysses. Heal!