The lack of suspense is interfering with my afternoon nap, so I might as well reveal the obvious: Ulysses by James Joyce is without a doubt the greatest novel in the English language. Nothing else even comes close.
Why? Ulysses is a demanding compilation of more erudition, complexity, humanity and down-right fun than the next ten novels on the list … maybe twenty. But what is fascinating about Ulysses is that it is also very readable. Despite all the horror stories you might hear about Joyce and Ulysses, they’re only tangentially true: Joyce is not easy, he insists that you read his works closely and often, but the rewards are legion.
“The only demand I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.” — James Joyce
Ulysses tells the story of Leopold Bloom’s day in Dublin, June 16, 1904 (which was also, supposedly, the day Joyce first took his future wife, Nora Barnacle, out on a date). The novel parallels Homer’s Odyssey with Bloom being Odysseus (Ulysses), his wife Molly being Penelope, and our old friend Stephen Dedalus being Telemachus. It’s good to know the Homeric parallels but I see it as just a framing structure and perhaps too much is made of it. For instance, in one reading group long ago a member was so involved in reading and studying The Odyssey in preparation that she never got around to reading Ulysses; in other instances you could see that the discussion was more about The Odyssey than it was about Ulysses; so I tend to downplay the Homeric structure and suggest that new readers throw away all those skeleton keys and annotation books and just read the novel itself.
In fact, skipping ahead to Day 20, Ulysses is a novel you can read every year (on Bloomsday is good) and never exhaust its wealth of complexity.
There are many editions of Ulysses to choose from, some are from the original text, some are corrections, others are un-corrections. Despite its flaws, the Gabler edition provides the text numbered that several secondary sources (annotations) reference, so it makes things a little easier. I also have a reprinting of the original text that has no text numbering, no footnotes, just the plain text that Joyce originally published (although I’ve forgotten if it was the Sylvia Beach edition or the commercial version published just after that). Every home library should have a well-thumbed copy of Ulysses (I have at least four).
But is Ulysses my favorite novel?
Yes. I acknowledge Ulysses as being the greatest novel and I also admit that it is my favorite novel; still, there are a few others that, depending on my mood, I might consider momentarily before settling on Ulysses. Joyce is too much of an institution these days and many far lesser writers tend to attract me, especially those that destroy a few of my gray cells. Books like Le Voyeur, The Tin Drum, JR, Anna Karenina, La Vie Mode d’emploi, The Makioka Sisters, Tristram Shandy, are all favorites, but none of them are really of the caliber of Ulysses.