For a while, reading David Pierce’s Reading Joyce, I found myself musing about whether I ought to assign it as the introductory text for my upcoming James Joyce class. It has much to recommend it in that regard. First, it is a friendly book. Although I don’t at all believe that Joyce criticism is haughtily exclusionary by nature, that is what most people think, if only because that is what most people think about Joyce. Introduce yourself, at a party, as an English professor specializing in James Joyce, and listen to the conversation languish. You have just identified yourself as someone who is either unapproachably brainy or weirdly occult, rocket scientist or Rosicrucian, and in either case probably not someone likely to have much to contribute on the subject of, say, the Boston Red Sox. (I speak this, deeply hurt, as a near-lifetime Red Sox fan who welcomes any opportunity to talk about them.) You may find yourself yearning for the old days, when the assumption would have been that you just liked dirty books.
If anything would, Reading Joyce should work to counter the common impression. As Pierce describes it on the first page, the book is a “journey” written “in the light of 40 years reading Joyce and 30 years teaching him.” It is part criticism, part appreciation, part autobiography. Pierce represents himself—I have no doubt honestly—as someone who struggled with reading Joyce as he struggled with growing up, and who found that the two experiences tended to coalesce. For him, as for me, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was what The Catcher in the Rye was to other readers of the same age. Stephen Dedalus’s mother cries when he is sent off to boarding school at the age of six. Pierce, like Stephen, raised Catholic and for a while inclined to the priesthood, remembers that when he was sent to a similar school at the age of eleven, “the priests had to restrain my mother physically as I was wrenched away.”
Then, after Portrait, Joyce’s other early book Dubliners was as good a way as any of discovering what had been going on behind the scenes while you were growing up. Ulysses, next, accompanied you into middle age; it was harder to make sense of than what had come before, but after all being forty is usually a more complicated business than being fifteen. Pierce mostly drops the literature-to-life parallelism when he gets to Finnegans Wake, but he does stress the passages that matter most to him at his age, and he does give us photographs—gravestones, for instance—likeliest to resonate with his fellow golden-yearers, for instance, me. [End Page 368]
There are many photographs, and they are in general terrific. Alice was right: books with pictures in them are better than the other kind. Some have been taken by the author, some are old favorites revisited, and some have been retrieved by way of one of the best things that ever happened to readers of Joyce, the Internet’s store of images. All together, they amount to a lifetime labor of love. They also come with captions that have been written by a human being who usually has something interesting to say about them. For example, comparing a recent photograph of “Araby”’s setting, North Richmond Street, with one taken fifty years ago, Pierce writes:
The character of the street has changed. You don’t have to know much about vernacular architecture to recognize that the railings look especially sad. Most of the gates have gone, as have the original finials, and, except for one of the two renovated houses, the upright stunted rails have been painted black and the railheads white. Partly because the frontage to the row is no longer uniform and partly because parked cars interfere with the wide-angle perspective, the houses no longer [quoting the opening of “Araby”] gaze “at one another with brown imperturbable faces.”
Perhaps this comment is not especially to the point...