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Bloomsday 100: Essays on "Ulysses" (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 47, Number 2, Winter 2010
pp. 300-304 | 10.1353/jjq.2011.0011

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Dear University of Florida Press:

Thank you, big-time, for publishing these essays from the Bloomsday centennial symposium in Dublin. I mean my thanks earnestly because there is a lot of good stuff in the book and because it must have been a real slog for you to get it out, since its copyright is a full five years after the event it commemorates (not that I can complain, since I missed the first deadline for my review of it and even now am writing a letter to you instead). I am here asking you to do the right thing, to publisher up and to offer the collection online in some less expensive and malleable form than that of the hardcover copy that the JJQ sent me. Because, as I say, there is a lot of good stuff in the book, and while the JJQ sent me mine for nothing, it's $69.95 on Amazon (and ranked #3,612,544 as I write this, which is, I concede, an infinite distance higher than the Joyce collection I co-edited, now out of print for years). So there are a lot of folks who should read it but who probably won't—not even in libraries, their acquisitions budgets gone or assigned exclusively to science journals—at that price, and a lot of folks who should read only part of it but, again, probably won't, for the same reason. They might, perhaps, be tempted if they could sample and then select the bits they wanted and would read it even more productively if those bits were linked to the other bits that would interest them most.

This seems an ideal collection for such an experiment, because it reflects throughout a quandary faced by critics writing about well-known works: how to acknowledge our many critical predecessors without being overwhelmed by them. It also illustrates, and sometimes even spells out plainly, the desirability of a principle of informed selectivity. The collection, in fact, ends with two striking essays representing different positions on the question of what criticism we need to read in order to read Joyce well. Michael Patrick Gillespie's "Past Its Sell-by Date: When to Stop Reading Joyce Criticism" offers a series of discomfiting digestive analogies for the Joycean's choices, since "the most appealing approach, . . . to ignore it all[,]. . . . compels one to attempt to survive by eating the rancid mayonnaise found in a jar at the back of the refrigerator. In critical terms this means recycling, usually with dyspeptic results, the same few authors that one read in graduate school" (219). This seems, in Gillespie's rendering, only slightly worse than confronting, for instance, "the acid reflux of ponderous Gallic prose" in a Jacques Derrida lecture (217). It is better, Gillespie suggests, "to abandon the effort once it becomes clear that an author's ideas are simply too much to swallow" (218). And it is best of all to follow mother's advice to "make a shopping list," in effect, to have "the discipline to decide what one needs to know or wishes to extract from Joyce criticism" (220), then "never to shop when hungry"—"a caution against bibliographic engorgement"—and finally to commit oneself to "reading the label" and thus to "avoid that painful feeling, akin to heartburn, that one gets by realizing one is halfway through an utterly worthless piece of criticism" (221). Gillespie's essay is as bilious as these selections make it sound, dismissing the critics and works it disdains in precisely the way one rejects food when overfull, but it is also wonderfully useful as a model. It is sound instruction in how to move from being an undergraduate or pre-professional reader of Joyce to a critically informed one. The piece may be thought of as extending Peter J. Rabinowitz's suggestion—that we must teach undergraduates a variety of ways to read literature—into a similar obligation to teach graduate students a variety of ways of reading criticism.

"Past Its Sell-by Date" is wonderfully complemented by Margot Norris's "Secrets, Narratology, and Implicature: A Virgin Reading of 'Calypso,'" which is as spare and unburdened as Gillespie's is...

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