This April I picked up Ulysses in a bookshop and despite remembering my failed attempt to read it two years ago (in my defense: it was a German translation then), I decided to give it another shot. This time I was prepared: I knew what the book was about, why it is important and how to read it: with patience. My fresh confidence was destroyed just a few minutes after purchasing the book; the man I bought it from called it “an instrument of torture.” I was torn between excitement and horror.
I was still scarred from my experience of reading War and Peace, which I finally finished last December after 6 months of struggle, so I realized I couldn’t just read Ulysses like any other book. This took me back to something I’d read at the beginning of this year: S (or Ship of Theseus) by Doug Borst and JJ Abrams, an unusual novel that guides the reader through four separate storylines, depicted on different levels of the book: The first is the story itself, called Ship of Theseus, in which the amnesiac S goes on a mysterious journey on a ship that takes him to various dark locations. The second level takes place in the footnotes: The fictional editor of the book interrupts the flow of the story by making comments and arousing suspicions about the secret author of Ship of Theseus, V.M. Straka. The final two elements are the handwritten comments of two of the book’s readers, university students who start communicating with each other through writing on the pages. One of them is the owner of the book and has been writing on its pages for a few years, the other one participates later, adding comments to the owner’s notes.
Though I did not like the plot of Ship of Theseus that much, its stylistic possibilities inspired me. The novel introduced me to a different way of approaching literature: active participation in getting to know not one, but four different stories. It awakened my love for the design of book pages.
I then started out simply reading Ulysses and adding some tiny comments on the side of the text whenever I felt like it. I still thought that a book is most beautiful untouched, in its original, intended form. But the further I got, the more I realized that this perception was untrue in every way imaginable. Why should I leave a book that I purchased, that I own now, in the form in which I acquired it, especially when this book is very important to me? It’s my very own version and not to change anything about it, not to make it distinguishable from the thousands of editions out there that look exactly the same, would be rather unoriginal. With every page I read, the piece of art was expanding. Bigger than the simple thing I’d bought. The colourful comments and sketches flattered the plain black on white and were soon also joined by drawings and little dried flowers or other objects between the pages. I felt the book was becoming something whole, a part of myself, more than something you just put back on your bookshelf after you finish it, something that stays with you and something that has a meaning to it. Most importantly, something that belongs to me, and only to me. I could finally say: “This is my book, this is my Ulysses.”
Admittedly, it’s not the same with every book. I have tried doing something similar to Anna Karenina or Kerouac’s Big Sur, but somehow it didn’t work out. These stories are very much focused on themselves, keen on telling us about Moscow families or the mad solitude of an author in Southern California, they simply do not permit influence from the outside. It also feels rather stupid trying to comment on things I do not know anything about, since I do not live in Moscow in the 19th century or Southern California in the late 1950s. Of course I also do not live in 1907 Dublin, but Ulysses is different. It lives on its depiction of life in detail, but also in general. I can relate to it in a way that I’ve never been able to before. You find yourself between the pages, in every sentence; you get to know yourself better than ever before. And through contributing to this book, I get the feeling that I’ve made it whole. A classic you can find in almost every bookstore, an important work of art, now related to myself: as intimately as a diary, most certainly personal and extremely valuable.
To share this unique experience, I persuaded some of my friends to read it with me and lend them my edition for a week or two at a time. It was beautiful to follow someone else’s reading progress, and going through their thoughts while doing so. The pages became even more colourful, and more full of life. However, it is rather difficult to pass on a book regularly, when you don’t see each other anymore because your ways have parted naturally after school. The four people that started reading my Ulysses edition now live in three different countries… That might be a problem.
I also experienced that the book is not for everyone. You need to have patience, which is something a lot of people don’t have, and you need to be committed. Their initial interest in Ulysses disappeared after a while, and it went from being our Ulysses back to my Ulysses.
Nevertheless, I highly recommend creating a personalised work of art within a book you love. It makes it more complete and wonderful and it proves something that should be obvious: Though you are not the author and thousands of other people own a copy of it, this one is genuinely yours.
Neele was listening to Bankrupt! by Phoenix.