*To hear a discussion of some Ulysses reading guides, check out my interview with Tom O’Leary here.
I love Ulysses, but it can be a beast to get through. It’s a rewarding beast, but it’s nice to have a companion by your side while facing such a beast. It’s not necessary to have a reading guide if you’re reading Ulysses for the first time, but it’s very likely you will encounter references or full passages that are completely inscrutable. I created Blooms and Barnacles in part because I hope it can be a resource for people who need some help making sense of Ulysses’ tough bits. Googling “Ulysses reading guide” will provide you with a plethora of options, in online, audio and dead-tree formats. If you’re shopping around for just the right guide, I have some suggestions.
The (New) Bloomsday Book
Harry Blamires’ Bloomsday Book is a tried and true option. I picked this book up the same day I bought my first copy of Ulysses since I figured I could use all the help I could get. I have seen The Bloomsday Book described as a “novel” online, but it isn’t a novel at all. It’s also not an annotation, so you won’t find every reference explained. Instead, it’s a collection of essays summarizing the 18 episodes of Ulysses and their major themes. Each chapter opens with a quick explanation of the corresponding episode in The Odyssey, which I personally really enjoyed. It’s written in plain language and is very easy to follow. I often found it helped me get back on track when I got lost in some of the novel’s more challenging sections. It was a favored guide of a couple members of our Ulysses book club here in Portland.
James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Study (Stuart Gilbert)
The OG Ulysses reading guide. Gilbert released the book in 1930, less than ten years after the publication of Ulysses, and this was the first book to introduce Joyce’s schema to the public – the Odyssean chapter titles, the associated arts and symbols that accompany each episode of Ulysses. In many ways, Gilbert’s book is the basis for how we talk about Joyce’s book nearly a century on. It’s a book of essays, some about topics relevant to Ulysses generally, others that delve into the details of individual episodes of Ulysses. It’s worth noting that Joyce himself had a direct role in producing this book as it was used to promote his novel at a time when it was still banned as obscene in the United States. The James Joyce Centre describes Gilbert’s book as an “act of ventriloquism,” so it may be one of the better ways to learn what Joyce was thinking when he wrote Ulysses.
Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses is an incredibly detailed book of annotations, and may be too much for a new reader, but is an extensive resource for someone looking to dig deeper during a re-read. Gifford himself describes it as “a specialized encyclopedia that will inform a reading of Ulysses.” You could spend just as much time reading the annotations in this book as reading Ulysses itself. Each chapter opens with a map of locations found in the chapter. If you’re one of those people who want to wander all over Dublin in the footsteps of Leopold Bloom and friends (disclaimer: I am one of those people), the maps are helpful to get a sense of geography, and in some cases, exact locations and movements of characters. There’s even an inset for “The Wandering Rocks” showing the movements of each character. Each chapter’s annotations also open with a list of Homeric parallels, the time and location of the episode, and the thematic organ, art, color, symbol and technique, based on the Gilbert schema.
The Joyce Project
If you don’t want to carry around an extra book, there are online options as well. The Joyce Project is an extensive online annotation of Ulysses. It contains the full text of Ulysses with color-coded highlights. Clicking on the highlights opens a window containing a lengthy explanatory annotation and images. The Joyce Project is a free online resource, so you won’t have to incur the expense or physical weight of a print annotation. Since it’s a website, it is also easily searchable, so you won’t have to spend time leafing through 800+ pages to find a particular reference. It also includes some unique features like a glossary of people and multiple editions of Ulysses to choose from.
Re:Joyce (Frank Delaney)
If the idea of reading a second book to help you read the book you’re already reading seems overwhelming, why not try listening instead? Re:Joyce is a podcast created by the delightfully informative journalist Frank Delaney. I’ll give you the bad news first: Delaney passed away in 2017, so unfortunately Re:Joyce is an unfinished masterpiece. The good news is that the episodes he did release are warm, friendly and erudite in equal doses. Delaney breaks down everything in Ulysses, page by page, sometimes paragraph by paragraph, in episodes that range from about seven to twenty minutes. Re:Joyce is less an annotation and more a companion piece to Ulysses, but I’ve learned something new every time I’ve listened. Like most podcasts, it is free and can be downloaded from iTunes, Stitcher or a number of other podcatcher apps. Highly recommended.
The first time I read Ulysses, I used a combination of The Bloomsday Book and the annotations found on the website genius.com. The annotations here are submitted by readers, similar to Wikipedia. In fact, many are links to relevant Wikipedia pages. The annotations range between short and sweet to extensive and detailed. I found them easy to digest as a new reader and were a great companion to the essays found in The Bloomsday Book. The annotations often include images and sometimes videos or sound files of songs in the novel. This website also contains the full text of Ulysses, so you can read online, and each chapter contains a breakdown of themes and Homeric parallels in a sidebar. Overall, very easy to use. Genius.com also provides similar annotations to Joyce’s other works if you’re hankering for more Joyce once you finish Ulysses. If you want to become an annotator yourself, you can create an account and annotate or comment.
As a conclusion, I’d like to emphasize a guide or annotation is not absolutely necessary to enjoy Ulysses, but it can be helpful. One word of caution: make sure that the guide doesn’t become a crutch. If you’re putting down your copy of Ulysses every few sentences and picking up the annotation, you may be relying on it too much, and you are potentially missing the immersive experience of reading a novel.
I’ll leave you with some advice I was given as a university student. I took a French literature class where we read poetry and several novels in French. My professor told us to just read through, even if we didn’t understand every word. It was only when you were utterly, totally lost that you should stop, backtrack and pick up your dictionary. Don’t feel like you should understand every word of Ulysses – very few people do (let’s be real, probably no one does). Make sure you are enjoying this literary journey because that’s probably why you started reading Ulysses in the first place. Once you get to the end, you will feel like Rocky at the top of the stairs. You are basically the Rocky of literature now.