Last night I started reading Ulysses, by James Joyce. It’s been staring at me from my bookshelf for several years now, ever since I came across Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels and decided to read my way down the list. (I think I got through about a book and a half before giving up. Fortunately I didn’t buy all 100 books in advance.)
I’ve been warned about Ulysses. It’s fat and white, which makes it good at staring accusingly at me from the bookshelf, being judgmental about the fact the spine is still uncreased.
I’ve been warned that it’s full of clever literary tricks and allusions I won’t understand, that nothing happens in it, that it’s a book people admire rather than love. Some people call it the greatest novel ever written.
I call it a broccoli book.
Some people love broccoli and eat it for the joy of it. I’m not one of them.
I get enough of people wandering around and talking to each other in real life. Although the plot of real life doesn’t entirely make sense and the ending is way too depressing, the characters tend to be well-rounded, with their own strengths and foibles, inconsistencies and blind spots. The sensory experience is incredible and you even get to pick your own path.
Why read to get more of what I get anyway? I read to go somewhere bigger, brighter, more meaningful, and more magical. I primarily read fantasy.
The problem is, I don’t think fantasy alone is a balanced book diet.
Fantasy novels (and I generalise here, so don’t be offended because I’m sure your book is a special case) are often good on the big flashy concepts and weaker in terms of character and the quality of the prose.
I think my current strengths as a writer, unsurprisingly, align pretty well with the strengths of the books I habitually read. To improve my skills in the areas where I’m weaker, I need to branch out in terms of reading.
I believe the writing that comes out of you is strongly influenced by the writing that goes into you, and I don’t think a little bit of James Joyce’s brilliance would hurt anyone. Writers should eat their broccoli as well as their cake.
So last night I read the first two pages of Ulysses before giving in to sleep. I understood them and they didn’t bore me to death. It was a promising start.
Have you read Ulysses? Am I going to regret this? Do you ever read books because you think you should eat your broccoli? Do any turn out to be more enjoyable than you expected? Are there any broccoli books currently on your to read list?
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