As I turned to D.T. Max's story about the lawsuit that's been issued by Lawrence Lessig and Carol Schloss against Stephen James Joyce, I was quite sure whose side I was on. Clearly Joyce's attempt to maintain iron-fisted control of his grandfather's work is an abuse of copyright, a threat to scholarship, an injustice against the world of literature and academic criticism, a perfect example of how far off-balance the copyright laws (and the enforcement of them) have gone.
And then, I was stopped in my tracks in the third paragraph. Max quotes Joyce at a "1986 gathering of Joyceans in Copenhagen" explaining that
"Dubliners" and "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" can be "picked up, read, and enjoyed by virtually anybody without scholarly guides, theories, and intricate explanations, as can 'Ulysses,' if you forget about all the hue and cry."
Two years ago, when I announced to friends that I had booked a long weekend in mid-summer to re-read Ulysses in anticipation of my first trip to Dublin, I was greeted with amusement and mild derision. "You're going to read it a second time? The only people I know who've even made it through once are English professors!"
"No," I said. "I'm going to read it a fourth time." Amusement replaced by astonishment.
Then followed a discussion of the folly of the book's recent ranking as the greatest novel of the 20th century.
Ulysses has been crushed by the accumulated weight of a century of criticism. The first that a young person would hear of it would be accompanied by descriptions of how difficult it is, how murky and puzzling. Why would anyone want to read it? Unless it's assigned for a class and you can't escape, you're best off staying well clear of it. Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure this is the message that most people get.
And that's a terrible shame. I haven't read every novel written in the 20th century so I can't venture to say that it's the greatest of all. But certainly I've not read one that was more astonishing for its hilarious and tragically beautiful vision of the nobility of daily life. The play of the language is great fun, certainly, but it's the human heart of the book that brings one to tears. The experience of reading Ulysses, if one is willing to throw oneself into it with abandon, is to be plunged into the exotic grand wonder of human life itself, with a poignancy and a fullness and a directness that I've not encountered to the same degree in any other novel.
After four readings, do I understand every allusion and get every joke? Of course not! Do I still get lost and find myself tripping through paragraphs uncertain of my way? Sure. So what? That's all part of the beauty of the experience. I don't feel that I have to unravel every puzzle. I certainly haven't unravelled every puzzle in my own life. With luck, I've got enough years left to read it another three or four times and I don't expect to "get" the whole thing then either.
But who, now, realizes that you can plunge into the book that way? A bright and curious teenager is going to be faced with it as a challenge, as a task, as something to be overcome, rather than something to be surrendered to.
The rational librarian/academic in me is rooting for Lessig & Schloss. They're not trying to take the copyright away -- they're just trying to make sure that the boundaries are loose enough for study and learning and criticism and creativity to flourish. I know that they're right.
But I think wistfully of how the lit crits have hijacked that great book and made it virtually unreadable, and my heart is with Stephen James Joyce.