Welcome back to the Know Me Betterman series! (Forgot what Know Me Betterman is (After all these weeks together? How could you?)? Click here.) This week we embark down a strange and wandering road with my esteemed bookstore colleague (and author!) Josh Cook. Josh's first novel, An Exaggerated Murder, launches next week, so we're exceedingly happy that he could spare the time to almost convince me I should give his pick another try. In answer to the question "If you were going to introduce yourself to someone by way of literature, what book would you choose?" Josh immediately picked...
Ulysses. It would have to be Ulysses. In some ways, I want the answer to be different because Ulysses carries so much baggage with it for so many readers; baggage from actual reading experiences and baggage from assumptions associated with Ulysses's cultural status as a “difficult book” and “one of those books people claim to read so they can sound smart,” or even as “one of those books on one of those lists that white men make to feel good about themselves.” (None of these being, unfortunately, completely false.) I start immediately wanting to defend the book against its ether of detractors, which, means, of course, that I also want to defend myself. It happens less frequently than you might imagine, but I dread being asked “What is your favorite book?” at the bookstore, because it is the same answer. Ulysses. Honesty is part of being a successful bookseller, so even though I could substitute any number of the books I truly love (In Search of Lost Time, Lolita, House of Leaves, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, I, Hotel...I'm not making this better am I?) I go with honesty and hope I haven't completely derailed the conversation. But, in the bookstore, I don't really have time to explain. Here I do.
Ulysses coalesced a current that had always been present in literature; an idea fought for, agitated for, written for, by hundreds of writers over centuries; an idea in opposition (still!) to so many social organizations, cultural assumptions, and power structures, and a principle central to what human society will become (or won't). The current, idea, principle: every human being is valuable. More specifically phrased for Ulysses: every human is worthy of the attention of literature. Every life can stand up to literary experimentation. Every story deserves style.
Leopold Bloom might be the most boring hero in literature. But he respects his wife as an equal. He distinguishes the buffoonery and posturing of Buck Mulligan from the honest, if still adolescent, intellectual curiosity of Stephen Dedalus. He is charitable. He is willing to see the other side of an argument. He is a bit of a dreamer. He is curious. He helps a blind man cross the street, but he doesn't just lead the blind man across the street, he also takes a moment to describe the surroundings so the blind man will have his bearings after Bloom has left. And then he wonders what it is like to be blind. He is kind to children and beggars. He throws pennycakes to seagulls. (A moment I appropriate in my book.) In other words, to put this another way, to phrase this in a way that I truly hope solidifies Bloom's stature as a great hero, to take this profoundly difficult and intellectual work of experimental literature from the academy that appropriated it and give it back to the people who deserve it: the world would be far less fucked up if there were more Leopold Blooms. I wouldn't give Ulysses because I think it describes me as I am, but because it describes who I aspire to be; a mix of Leopold and Stephen and Molly and Joyce. A human being writing and reading and thinking and loving for the value and dignity of all other human beings.
I have five different editions of the book. I have a Ulysses poster and two Ulysses themed original works of art. One of the loveliest gifts my partner and I ever got was a pair of pint glasses one of which was inscribed “Lovers love” and the other “to love love.” Hell, my partner even has a Ulysses tattoo. I once did a presentation at a bar on how to read Ulysses for the first time. (Executive Summary: Be OK with not knowing what's going on and just get through it.) I wrote my senior thesis on Ulysses. I've read it in its entirety six times and constantly return to passages for various reasons, the most recent to see if some quotes or passages could be appropriated for my wedding vows. (Surprisingly, there were not.) If I were an eccentric millionaire who didn't need a day job, I would finish The Muppets Take Ulysses, a gonzo-pop-criticism project started with my partner that imagines a Muppets adaptation of Ulysses.
But, of course, as a writer, there is no more complete expression of who I am as a person than what I've written. (Rebecca of this very blog, commented on the overwhelming Joshiness of my book.) And, even though you don't need to have read Ulysses to enjoy my book, Ulysses is all through my novel, An Exaggerated Murder (in what I hope are interesting and surprising ways). You can only write what's in your head and Ulysses is in mine.
Josh Cook is a bookseller at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and grew up in Lewiston, Maine. His fiction, criticism, and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and journals. He blogs for Porter Square, at In Order of Importance, and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. An Exaggerated Murder is his first novel.