The Odyssey on Mulberry Street

Here again I am going to combine two closely related challenge questions into one response. First is the book I have read the most and the second, obviously, is my favorite picture book from childhood.

I was intending to discuss James Joyce’s Ulysses here since I believe it is the book I have read the most and if I was more conscientious I would be reading at least once a year in preparation for Bloom’s Day, but when I scrolled down and saw the question that followed, I realized that in terms of the number of times I read any one book, Babar and And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street made a commodius vicus of recirculation around the likes of Ulysses.

And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street was the first Dr. Seuss book and I might have worn out a first edition from the Pacific Beach library before we moved to what is now an off-ramp of I-5. Later (I might have been 6 or 8), And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street was published in a ubiquitous children’s periodical of the 1950s call Children’s Digest. This gave me my own copy of Dr. Seuss Opus No. 1 and I read it ragged. It’s interesting to think back to those copies of Children’s Digest which came in the mail every month. My parents seemed to always have a magazine or two for me and for a while there was even a regular book subscription:  I believe it was something like the “All About …” series and I distinctly remember giving a book report at school telling all about the magic of television (but we didn’t have one then, if I recall).

Later on in life I began to associate Reader’s Digest and Children’s Digest with the antiseptic smelling clinic I visited three times a week to get my allergy shots. To this day I cannot see, touch, or smell a copy of Reader’s Digest without feeling ill and although Children’s Digest is no more, I suspect I would have a similar reaction. There is a further recollection I have about Children’s Digest:  it might have been one of the first instances I experienced of corporate takeover when it was gobbled up by the power hungry Jack and Jill magazine.

I mentioned Babar and between reading it for myself and reading for my daughter, it might actually be the book I read the most. But the question concerns the book I might consider a favorite. Like most parents, I read the same silly book to get my daughter to sleep night after night and I suspect if I found a new copy of Babar on my desk today I would immediately toss it into the lagoon for the alligators to enjoy. Sometimes too much is a surfeit.

While I’m at it, I suppose I should mention the adult-type book I read the most. Yes, it is Ulysses and I’ve already discussed Joyce’s novel (the best novel ever written) and won’t want to repeat myself too much. I do want to make one observation:  I have read a number of excellent novels that I would consider nearly perfect but inevitably they are short and focused. Ulysses contains passages that are also close to perfect, many many such passages. You might say that Ulysses is a whole shelf full of near perfect novels all in one volume. Read it often!

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan

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.