50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Ulysses (page 1 of 2)

Off-Topic: Definitive Ranking of All 50 Books

Good morning, class.

I love making lists. Ever since I started this blog I’ve been anxious to put the list of “50 Books to Read Before You Die” in order, from least favorite all the way up to favorite. I had to read them all first—so here’s a three-years-long dream coming true. I’ve read Every. Single. One.

To be honest, I paid more attention to the very least favorite and the top ten. The middle-ranked books got organized with a little less scrutiny. But I really can’t stand Martin Amis’ Money: A Suicide Note so it’s at the bottom. I wish I could unread it.

50.Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis
49.On the Road by Jack Kerouac
48.A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul
47.Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
46.The Quiet American by Graham Greene
45.The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
44.The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
43.Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
42.The Stranger by Albert Camus
41.Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
40.Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
39.The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
38.The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
37.A Passage to India by E. M. Forster
36.The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
35.The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
34.The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
33.A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
32.Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
31.Lord of the Flies by William Golding
30.Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
29.The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
28.Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
27.Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
26.The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
25.Men Without Women by Ernest Hemingway
24.Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
23.The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
22.Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
21.Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
20.Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
19.Hamlet by William Shakespeare
18.Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
17.1984 by George Orwell
16.The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien
15.One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
14.Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
13.The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
12.The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank
11.Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
10.The Color Purple by Alice Walker
9.Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
8.The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Timeby Mark Haddon
7.His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman
6.The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
5.The Bible by Various
4.Life of Pi by Yann Martel
3.To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
2.Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling
1.Ulysses by James Joyce

Yes, of course Ulysses is my top pick. I know it’s certainly not everyone’s favorite, I know it’s one of my several biases . . . but I love it anyway.

After writing this list out, I looked back at some of my older posts—looks like I condemned ranking books a few times, making my list here a bit hypocritical. Well, maybe a person can’t compare one book to another in a hierarchical system like this . . . I may pick Ulysses as my favorite, but I can’t just pick it up and read it for fun the same way I can with a Harry Potter book. And, to be fair, while I picked Ulysses for the way it changed my perspective as a reader, and for the way it portrayed love and humanity, it’s not like Harry Potter didn’t do that for me first.

If I have a point, I guess it’s that a book’s meaning to you as a reader will constantly change—and that there are as many books as there are people, and as many complicated feelings about stories as there are relationships.

I’ve got one more blog post planned—I want to share some of my personal reflections about reading all 50 books. Then you can all graduate from Prof. Jeffrey’s class.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Off-Topic: Favorite Authors

Welcome back class.

I think every self-respecting avid reader has a list of their favorite authors at the ready. Sometimes, when you’re wandering aimlessly through the used bookstore, knowing full well that you don’t have enough money to buy all the books you want, the only lifeline you can cling to is the recognition of a familiar author’s name.

So today, I thought I’d share with you my short list of favorite authors. I only had one rule when picking out each name—I have to have read more than one of their books. As much as I’d love to include Harper Lee because of To Kill a Mockingbird or Yann Martel because of Life of Pi, I only know that I like one of their books. The list below weeds out any potential one-hit wonders.

Click the links to see my blog posts on each book. The list is alphabetical to avoid bias, in case any of them stumble across this blog one day.

And without further ado, my list of favorite authors!


James Joyce

Books I’ve Read: DublinersA Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses

I know I’m in the minority here. Most people find James Joyce’s stuff tedious, deliberately confusing, and needlessly weird (though Dubliners is a notable exception—it appeals to a wider audience, so if Joyce makes you uncomfortable, start with Dubliners). But for me, Joyce is a huge inspiration. His experimental style and meaningful stories have changed the way I read and write. I was lucky enough to have read his books in a helpful environment, which made it possible to understand his approach and intent while also encouraging me to discover things in his books for myself. If I see his name on the cover, I’m reading it, whatever it is.

Stephen King

Books I’ve Read: CarrieThe Shining, and On Writing

I don’t imagine Stephen King and James Joyce have much in common, but I love King for the same reason I love Joyce—he has inspired me and changed the way I read and write. Whenever I notice myself using an adverb, I think of King’s unadulterated hatred of adverbs. To him, they are a sign that the writer is afraid of being unclear . . . so they throw in the adverb to assert feelings on the reader, leaving little room for interpretation and chipping away at a story’s power.

But I didn’t just discover word choice with King—I discovered that story matters above all. Through both Carrie and The Shining, King crafted strange characters and supernatural worlds all in service of a good story. I’ve only read three books off of his loaded bookshelf, and I plan on reading more. Joyce may keep me in the clouds with his complexities, but King grounds me in a way that few authors ever have, and that’s been important to my journey as a writer.

Lois Lowry

Books I’ve Read: The Giver and Number the Stars

Lois Lowry is one of those young adult authors that prepare young readers for more mature reading. Both of the books I’ve read by her were assigned reading in middle school, and both of them left a bigger impact on me than most books from that time in my life. The Giver was an excellent piece of science fiction that prepared me for books on the 50-books list like 1984 and Brave New World; and Number the Stars portrayed the lives of children in the Holocaust, and left me empowered to be the kind of hero the protagonist chose to be.

These two books are serious dramas with emotional drive, and they are as meaningful for preteens and teenagers as they are for adults. Lowry’s stories aren’t watered-down—they are intelligent and moving. That can be hard to find in the ocean of literature for kids, and Lowry is one of those lifelines to cling to.

Gregory Maguire

Books I’ve Read: WickedSon of a Witch, and A Lion Among Men

I’ve been won over by Gregory Maguire. The first book I read by him, Wicked (which is nothing like the Broadway musical), allowed me to make the big transition between young adult books and books for adults. Maguire took the realm of a children’s fantasy series and made something serious, dark, clever, and unfiltered. And it all started with a simple concept—an attempt to understand the strange and evil Wicked Witch of the West.

I’ve read some (not all) of the sequels to Wicked, each of which have been met with mixed reactions by the same people that loved the original. I haven’t had the same reactions—I was just as moved and awe-struck with these stories of Oz-based characters beyond the Wicked Witch, and I will continue to read books by Maguire because of that. I’m excited to finish the rest of the Wicked series and I’m excited to see how special his other fantasy-oriented stories turn out.

Lemony Snicket

Books I’ve Read: A Series of Unfortunate Events, Books 1-7

This one almost doesn’t count—Lemony Snicket is the figment of the author’s imagination, through which he tells several of his stories. But I’ve never read any books by the real Daniel Handler, only those by his fictional persona Lemony Snicket, and I absolutely love Snicket’s writing. I’ve read some of his shorter works in addition, but I know Lemony Snicket mostly through his most popular series, A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Both the Netflix adaptation and the movie adaptation have their good qualities, but the books surpass them through the uniqueness of Snicket’s writing—something that cannot be described, only experienced. Snicket’s constant insistence that the reader should read something else more pleasant, his capacity for descriptive tirades and misguided definitions of large vocabulary words, his distinct brand of somber empathy . . . all of these quirks converge to portray the unfortunate lives of the Baudelaire children. To top it all off, it’s for kids—I know of no other books that portray the unpleasantries of life for kids as well as these books do, and Lemony Snicket is one of my favorite writers for that reason alone.


And that’s my list! Feel free to share you’re list with me. In the meantime, I’m finishing up Don Quixote next, and I look forward to telling you what I learned!

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: To the Lighthouse

Welcome back, class.

I’ll start with the concerning fact that Virginia Woolf doesn’t have a single work on the list. And, to follow up: out of 50 titles on the list, ten are composed by women. So today is about Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel, To the Lighthouse.

Virginia Woolf is one of those hallmark authors who stand out by reputation alone, regardless of sex as a qualifier, while still being one of the clearer representatives of feminism known in literature. The fact that she has no novel on the 50-books list highlights the fact that so many other women are left off of it, too.

So either the creators of this list actually tried and failed to find an appropriate amount of female authors, which hints at incompetence (hence, my Missing From the List posts); or, even worse, they deliberately chose all books by male authors and decided in retrospect to throw a bone toward diversity, and the female authors they did choose are featured simply to meet a diversity quotient (and that’s just considering female authors—for authors of racial and other minorities, you’ll have to hear this rant in a separate post).

Either way, the misogyny is strong with this one.


After such a rant, though, I have to admit I’ve only read one of Woolf’s works—but it was really good! To the Lighthouse is a beautiful work of modernist fiction that is special not because of the story, but because of its meaning and the way it’s told. For more on what modernism is, look at my previous post on it.

The Isle of Skye, where the action of To the Lighthouse takes place.

The novel is separated into three parts. Part 1, “The Window,” takes place on one evening in 1910, while the Ramsay family visits their vacation home on the Isle of Skye. We meet the characters and understand their complicated dynamics. Then there’s part 2, “Time Passes,” which is a fluid and ambiguous portrayal of ten years of time, encompassing World War I and the deaths of many major characters in the family. Finally, part 3, “The Lighthouse,” takes place on another evening in 1920, when the family returns to their vacation home as almost completely new people.

The story’s strength is it’s symbolism. The lighthouse represents an unreachable goal, and the terrible weather is the natural world that attacks and hinders humanity’s endeavors. The link between the two evenings, separated by ten years of time, is portrayed through the painting one character works on for those ten years, incomplete without the passage of time—just like the novel itself, incomplete without the strangeness of part 2, loosely stringing together the beginning and the end of Woolf’s novel. Through such symbolism, To the Lighthouse is careful, artistic, experimental, and wonderfully strange, and belongs on the list simply because of what it’s able to do.


Something I tend to forget about modernism is its obsession with time. Novelists from this period liked to portray the unreliability of time by reorganizing chronological order, speeding up and slowing down the story, and confusing a single moment with an eternity. Virginia Woolf fit right in with these modernists—entire chapters in parts 1 and 3 of To the Lighthouse take place in seconds, while part 2 speeds through ten years in no time at all. The action of parts 1 and 3 is also mostly internal, letting stream-of-consciousness explain characters and their motivations—something modernism all but invented.

Which brings me to a complicated point. In a lot of ways, this novel reminds me of Ulysses—need I remind you, one of my favorite novels ever. To the Lighthouse may never match Ulysses in my eyes, but it comes closer than most novels because it does everything Ulysses does (challenges convention, scrambles time, uses stream-of-consciousness to tell a better story, etc.), to the point that if I wanted someone to try Ulysses, I might have them read To the Lighthouse first.

And if To the Lighthouse accomplishes what Ulysses does, and it’s easier on the brain to boot, maybe To the Lighthouse should be on the list INSTEAD of Ulysses (which hurts me to write, I assure you). I’m noticing that there are works on the list that shouldn’t be read—studied or made aware of, absolutely, but not “cozy-up-with-on-the-couch” read. The BibleThe Divine ComedyThe Canterbury Tales, and Ulysses are each books on the list that make more sense as references and less sense as cover-to-cover reading challenges.

Author Virginia Woolf

On a list called “50 Books to Read Before You Die,” there should be books that readers can gain something from. Books like Ulysses fly a little to close to the sun for readers to enjoy, whereas a book like To the Lighthouse (while in no way an easy novel) allows readers the chance to fly as well.


To bring it back to feminism, and the lack of it featured on the list, here’s a post I made back in March (National Women’s History Month) on the great women writers I know.

Part of the reason To the Lighthouse should be on the list, even in place of Ulysses, is because it’s more accessible. But more importantly, Virginia Woolf’s lifetime statement on behalf of female authors allows To the Lighthouse to have something Ulysses only hopes to have: the voice of the female artist. This is more than the idea of a diversity quotient. This is about representation of female authors, and how statements of all kinds—novels, plays, poems, paintings, stories—when represented mostly by one kind of person, are incomplete statements.


I am still reading A Passage to India by E. M. Forster, another representative of modernism and of a minority—but more on that next class.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Off-Topic: Favorite Characters From the List (so far)

Good morning class.

Now that I’m over halfway through the 50-books list, I’ve seen quite a set of characters that stand out. So I’ve chosen my favorites of the bunch. Characters that shock me, make me wonder, thrill me to the bone, terrify me, make me weep, show me how to be myself . . . they’re all here, in alphabetical order (by last name, because after all, this is a class).


  • Lyra Belacqua from His Dark Materials Trilogy

I’m almost cheating here—I’ve only finished books one and two of this trilogy, The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife (blog post pending). But those two books have been enough to show me how amazing this 12-year old girl is. She can lie through her teeth without second guessing herself, fooling every adult enemy that crosses her path, and she is fierce, determined, and brave in every dangerous situation she approaches. She isn’t perfect, though, and her sense of morality is far too black and white (at least at first) to help her make difficult choices. But even when she takes things too far, I can’t help but admire her no-holds-barred heroism against more competent enemies and her unending kindness toward her friends.

Actor Milo O’Shea as Leopold Bloom in the movie version of “Ulysses” (1967)

With the way I gush about Ulysses, I’m sure this entry doesn’t surprise any of you. As much as I would have liked to have chosen the rambling and coarse Molly Bloom or the moody and literary Stephen Dedalus, my favorite character from Ulysses is the thoughtful, scientific, compassionate Leopold Bloom. He loves animals, embraces his feminine side, and changes the world by acts of kindness. He is a hero—not an ancient hero of physical strength and battle-readiness, but a modern hero of artistic subtlety and active love. The world would be a lot better with men like this.

Christopher is the most unique character from any novel I’ve read—not because of his autism, but because of the way his autism is portrayed. We don’t look at him from the outside . . . we look at the rest of the world through his eyes. He shows us how life is like prime numbers, and how animals somehow speak a universal language, and how love is a very tricky thing to define. His life can be difficult to watch, especially when his disability puts his safety in jeopardy, but his story is an amazing one that wouldn’t be half as great without him.

Most people who look at The Great Gatsby would be more impressed by Jay Gatsby himself . . . but every time I read this novel I am more and more enamored by Daisy Buchanan. As the love Gatsby is always chasing, and as a close family member of the narrator, she is almost entirely painted in a positive light, and it makes it that much harder to see how terrible she is. She is far too wrapped up in her own rich lifestyle, cares nothing for her daughter, and eventually stoops to murder to punish her husband for his affair, while the murder ultimately gets pinned on Gatsby. But I end up sympathetic to her, for reasons I can’t explain—she is pushed around by the men in her life who care more about their own passions, and she is trapped by the money she married into. I rarely feel so much anger, pain, curiosity, and pity toward a single character.

First Lines and an Illustration

Holden is another character I don’t really like—that is, if I met him in person, I would be near him for long. But reading about him is one of the more incredible experiences I’ve had reading a novel, because he is a force to be reckoned with. One never knows what he’ll say next, or what he’ll think in his twisted mind, forcing himself to be an outsider surrounded by “phonies.” But it’s not simply interesting to read his story—his angst is far too relatable, and his compassion (which he does a good job of hiding from readers) is far too powerful. Holden is a scary mirror to look into, but he’s also a touching and comforting hero on the search for happiness like we all are.

Again, most people would probably say Atticus Finch, Scout’s father, is their favorite character from this novel; there’s nothing wrong with that, because Atticus is perfect. Even a little too perfect. Scout, on the other hand, is a beautiful mess. She loves reading and hates school, gets in fights to defend her father, and always finds interesting ways to get into trouble. I love watching her transform from a free-spirited, sometimes bratty little girl into someone older . . . not quite an adult, but still someone who gains one of the most mature qualities a person can have: empathy. Her childhood is honest and hilarious to witness, making her easily one of my favorite characters from any novel.

Samwise Gamgee, portrayed by actor Sean Astin in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Among all the serious and somber heroes from this trilogy, Samwise is the goofy friend and sidekick, and it makes him stand out. But if he was only a fool, he would be no different from Merry and Pippin, who are just as goofy; but Samwise is more than that. Samwise is loyal to Frodo and, in his own comic way, wiser than everyone they meet on their journey. As much as what he does makes me laugh, he does just as much that warms my heart and makes me cheer. Every fantasy story I’ve read or watched since The Lord of the Rings has needed a hero like Frodo and a friend like Sam, or it couldn’t even compare, and I think that says a lot about Samwise himself.

Emma Watson as Hermione Granger

Speaking of other fantasy stories, I’ll always have a place in my heart for Harry Potter, and I think Harry himself is an amazing hero to lead the series—on par with Frodo. Harry has Ron in the same way Frodo has Samwise, but more importantly, Harry has Hermione. She is brilliant, supportive, and headstrong in their small group of friends. It wasn’t until I grew up and reread the series that I realized how much Hermione did for her friends, and how important she was to the series—not just for the plot, but for feminism and its reputation in fantasy. I can trace my current feminist beliefs back to my first encounters with Hermione, her toughness, her cleverness, and her emotional arc over seven amazing books.

And last but not least is a unique character from a peculiar story. Pi of Life of Pi is hard to describe—he is a heavily religious 16 year-old boy from India, who has an incredible love for stories. It’s possible that his love of stories is what drives him to create a fiction about being trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger, after his entire family dies on a sinking ship in the Pacific. There is no proof that the story is false, though the much more believable story is that he survived without taming a tiger alone on the open sea, so the adult Pi telling this story asks the audacious question: which is the better story? And it’s those that pick the story with the tiger that are the real believers, the real story-tellers, who live a more fulfilled life. For that, Pi’s story is one of my favorites, and Pi is one of my favorite characters because of it.


And that’s my list! I’m still reading Brave New World, so show up for class next time to hear my thoughts.

Until then, enjoy your week!

Prof. Jeffrey

Ulysses

Good morning, class.

I’m not hiding my bias here . . . this is one of my favorite novels ever. I’ve read all 700 rambling pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses twice—once with the reassurance of a college classroom, and a second time “for fun.” I’ve mentioned it in almost half of the 100+ posts I’ve written for this blog (I recommend revisiting two of them: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Modern Literature; the review might help).

But I’m in the minority here. Most people who try Ulysses find it meandering and over-complicated. Even those that do like it tend to appreciate it from a distance, for how it changed history or defined a literary movement, but they don’t like to read it. I’m in the minority because I like experiencing the scope of the story, the empathy created by the characters, the literary connections, the “everything-is-connected”-ness of the details . . . I like it for exactly what it is, and not many people would say the same.

But, students, if I can show you why it made the 50-books list at all, maybe you can see why I like Ulysses so much.


Actor Milo O’Shea as Leopold Bloom in the movie version of “Ulysses” (1967)

The story takes place in Dublin, Ireland, over the course of one day: Thursday, June 16, 1904. Leopold Bloom, our “hero,” is a Jewish advertising agent roaming the streets of Dublin, and his internal monologue narrates the story in messy fragments. His thoughts wander over (among other things) the child he lost 11 years ago, his father’s suicide, and the affair that his wife, Molly, is currently having with another man.

Meanwhile, Stephen Dedalus (protagonist of the prequel, Portrait of the Artist) deals with his mother’s recent passing, his unbearable alcoholic father, and his cynical disdain for just about EVERYTHING (he’s a little nauseating). He roams Dublin’s streets as well, and he and Bloom spend most of the day almost meeting, until they run into each other in the last few chapters like destiny—a father longing for a missing son, and a son wishing for a better father.

James Joyce, author of Ulysses (1922)

And then, without giving too much away, the novel ends by giving Molly Bloom a voice of her own—the final chapter is her epic monologue reaching beyond the confines of the single day. She rambles through cataclysmic run-on sentences on sex, love, marriage, memory, and femininity, and fondly remembers the day when she agreed to marry Leopold.


There are too many literary references to count, but the most important ones are about The Odyssey by Homer. Bloom is Odysseus, journeying from his home and back (boiling down 20 years into one day), trying to return to his “son” (Stephen/Telemachus) and his wife (Molly/Penelope). The terrifying Cyclops becomes the bigot spouting his beliefs in the bar, while the visit to the underworld becomes a funeral, and the entrancing witch Circe takes the form of a prostitute in a brothel.

These Odyssey references, where the name Ulysses comes from, give the novel it’s epic-ness. The length of this one day is impressive, so filled with detail that it overflows at the seams, and it still doesn’t capture every single moment of the day. The ancient has been updated to match advances in technology and societal evolution, but it still meets the same archetypes it’s known for.

Most importantly, Bloom is a modern Odysseus—less a warrior, more a gentle soul. He is kind to animals, has a love for science, and empathizes with Molly’s extramarital desires. Unlike most men, he knows he doesn’t own her, and that she could be suffering just as much as he is over their long-lost child. He leaves only room in his heart for compassion, making him more of a hero than anyone else in the story . . . because a modern hero isn’t someone physically strong, but rather someone who performs simple acts of kindness.

Statue of James Joyce in Dublin, Ireland

So, even though there are literary reasons why Ulysses is a masterpiece, it’s Bloom’s compassion and empathy, found throughout the novel, that make this book good. It may be hard to see under the complicated language and plot, but this novel has more love on any one page than most novels can show in a hundred. Joyce handles grief, prejudice, hope, sex, depression, death, longing, wonder, and life, all with a deep and profound love.


Sometimes, it surprises me how I’m in the minority in liking this book, and then I flip through its pages and remember—this novel is HARD to read. It’s an experience that nothing can replace, and for that reason it belongs on the list, but it is not a book you just pick up and read!

If you are going to try it, and you don’t have a literary professional standing nearby at all times, you might try reading a guidebook along with it—I recommend Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living by Declan Kiberd. It’s pretty focused on understanding the intentions behind the novel, and it helped me find the love within Ulysses. I also recommend any and all online resources—a summary won’t replace the novel, but it will help you understand what on earth is happening.

I may be a 23-year old blogger, but I think I understand Ulysses, so feel free to ask me questions after class (a.k.a. in the comments below). I absolutely didn’t cover everything here, but I’ve got plenty more to say on this subject if you want to know more. Seriously, ask me questions—all I want to do is talk about Ulysses all day.


Now that I’ve finished Ulysses, I’ve started reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Whenever I tell people this, they stare, like reading Ulysses and Jane Eyre outside of school isn’t normal behavior. It seems perfectly normal to me.

Anyway, I’ll see you for class next week.

Prof. Jeffrey

“I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

—from Ulysses by James Joyce

“—But it’s no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.

—What? says Alf.

—Love, says Bloom, I mean the opposite of hatred.”

—from Ulysses by James Joyce

“Mr Bloom glanced from his angry moustache to Mr Power’s mild face and Martin Cunningham’s eyes and beard, gravely shaking. Noisy selfwilled man. Full of his son. He is right. Something to hand on. If little Rudy had lived. See him grow up. Hear his voice in the house. Walking beside Molly in an Eton suit. My son. Me in his eyes. Strange feeling it would be.”

—from Ulysses by James Joyce

“Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in. Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it, it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see.

Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells. You are walking through it howsomever. I am, a stride at a time. A very short space of time through very short times of space. Five, six: the nacheinander. Exactly: and that is the ineluctable modality of the audible. Open your eyes.”

—from Ulysses by James Joyce

Missing From the List: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Hello again, class.

James Joyce’s Ulysses features prominently on the 50-books bookmark, for good reason (more on that another time). But what bothers me is that Ulysses is a sequel—one of the main characters, Stephen Dedalus, is the main character of Joyce’s original groundbreaking work A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I won’t have any of this reading-out-of-order nonsense, so Portrait of the Artist needs to be spoken for.

Granted, I’m not the first to admit that Ulysses is the better of the two. It has stronger characters and fewer sermons. But Ulysses wouldn’t have been possible without Portrait of the Artist. And since millions of books wouldn’t have been possible without Ulysses, I think Joyce’s first novel has earned a little spotlight.


Portrait of the Artist tells the coming-of-age story of Stephen Dedalus, a boy in late 19th century Ireland with a creative streak and a complicated life. We get to see him transform from a mystified little boy to a questioning teenager, and then to an adult making the terrifying decision to be himself, regardless of the consequences. He loses respect for his father, puts his family in financial struggle, rejects religion and Irish nationality . . . and doesn’t compromise.


The mastery of this novel is not the story—this is a story anyone could tell. What makes it masterful is it’s original style, which any reader encounters with the opening lines: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo . . .”

It’s confusing, that’s for sure. It causes quite the double-take.

Some of you know that this is called stream-of-consciousness, where the author takes the characters inner thoughts and dumps them on the page as they are. Most authors do this within the rules of grammar, but Joyce didn’t have time for rules. Just like Stephen’s struggle to be himself, despite the expectations around him, Joyce denied the expectations a novelist should follow.

These opening lines are the inner thoughts of Stephen as a child, with a glorified version of his father telling him a story. The “moocow” is the combination of the sound with the animal (imagine asking a child what noise a cow makes, and they answer “MOOOO;” in their mind, they don’t distinguish the noise from the animal . . . they are the same thing until they’re old enough to tell the difference). And without commas or periods, the run-on feels like a knowledge dump, which is how Joyce portrays the mind of a child—unbound by rules.


As Stephen grows up, his mind develops, and his thoughts become more structured. He uses a stronger vocabulary and a more refined grammar. Not that it makes his style much easier to follow—we are still inside the mind of a temperamental artist.

Which is why the title has that specific word artist. Stephen isn’t just anyone—his creative tendencies are a part of his core. He finds himself obsessed with the beauty of words, and his imagination is incredible as it unfolds (my favorite moment is when he is a boy: he thinks of different colors of roses and imagines a rose that’s green).

Stephen is a bit too angst-y to be likable, but he is still a strong character. And when we see him again in Ulysses . . . well, we’ll get there when we get there.


I’m still reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, and it’s worth mentioning the similarities it has with Portrait of the Artist. The main character is hinted to have autism, so he sees everything differently—many people claim that James Joyce had some form of autism, which may have led to his particular stylistic approach. While the novels are very different, the stylistic connections make The Curious Incident a kind of spiritual sequel to Joyce’s writing.

That being said, Haddon’s book is a lot easier. If Joyce isn’t your thing, The Curious Incident is a touch easier on the brain cells. But more on that next week.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

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