Until recently, I believed that there was a thin line down the center of our great society. On one side of the line, there were those that Have. On the other, there were those who Have Not. The line I’m talking about, of course, is that bucket list line that might take you most of your 30s to cross out, “Read James Joyce’s Ulysses.”
I love to read. I feel the way about books that most Philadelphians seem to feel about the Phillies: excited, loud, and ready to spend money on more. For decades, I stuck to light science fiction, easily-digestible classics, Clive Cussler-esque adventure books, non-fiction… and yes, the ever-maligned “chick lit.” At the age of 11, I had accrued library fines in excess of $150. Nevertheless, I was never brave enough to try to read Ulysses.
Once the Rosenbach hired me, I knew that with the Joyce manuscript so close that it was my destiny to cross that line and become a Have. Since then, I have picked-up Ulysses, gotten to page five, and turned my Kindle off no less than three times. I worried about myself, my intelligence and the pace of the rot in my aging mind. Many of my colleagues, our trustees, reading group participants, and members have conquered and loved this work.
Going into Bloomsday, I was worried that I wouldn’t “get it” because I hadn’t read the book. I certainly didn’t have a deep and abiding connection to Joyce. In fact, I felt a little left out of the Rosenworld because I was so firmly on the Have Not side of that dividing line. So firmly, in fact, that I’m almost certain that if I didn’t work at the Rosenbach I would never have attended Bloomsday.
What a mistake that would have been. After attending my first official Bloomsday, I’m convinced that it is probably a better experience for those who Have Not than those who Have.
Even with the Bloomsday crowds, the street was much quieter than I expected. It was not an accusing silence, as is often imposed at more formal presentations. At Bloomsday, people felt comfortable moving around, talking on the outskirts, and shuffling their Bloomsday Heralds. Even in their semi-quiet attentiveness, people really listened. (In my experience, people rarely really listen in their everyday lives.) They were absolutely intent on the words and on the moment.
The readers are practiced, having learned flourishes of French, Greek, and the nonsense words scattered throughout James Joyce’s work. Their pacing, intonation, and movement gave life to the sentences that I struggled to conquer alone. It’s clear from the ambiance that the reader’s are highly respected for their willingness to take on the challenge. Listening to them, I felt I was being taught to read again, but in HD.
All afternoon, the Bloomsday crowd grew both in size and in intensity, becoming a more amplified version of itself. My coworker texted me, “Make sure you watch Drucie [McDaniel]. You won’t be disappointed.” As she took the stage, the whole crowd seemed to brace itself. Next year, I will do the same. The day came avalanching down the mountain, pouring itself into the last 30-minutes: Molly’s Soliloquy. Topics include love, marriage, and middle life. While I have a lot of living left to do before I know for sure, I imagine that Joyce and Drucie capture all of it perfectly. Around me, soft sighs heaved and tears fell. I was mostly frozen, feeling as if Joyce himself had just punched me with something very very real. Like I knew more about the world.
After Bloomsday, will I try to read Ulysses again? Yes I said yes I will yes. However, I am even more convinced that Bloomsday is for the Have Nots because it makes Ulysses “eminently accessible” to quote our Director. The dividing line that I saw between the Have and Have Nots is just not there anymore.
While my desire to read the novel is stronger than ever, the pressure I once felt to do so is gone. Moreover, even if I never finish Ulysses, through Bloomsday and the Rosenbach, I have experienced and glimpsed the genius of Joyce.