You could argue that the best way to read James Joyce’s Ulysses is to just get stuck into it – but I do think this can be difficult. That’s why a reading guide is so helpful. Probably the best two books to help guide your way through reading Ulysses are The Bloomsday Book by Harry Blamaires and Ulysses Annotated by Don Gifford, but here’s a look at some of your choices of reading guide.
(Links are to Amazon UK; see end of article for Amazon US links*)
The Bloomsday Book is a chapter by chapter guide and synopsis which gives background detail and context to Ulysses. The level of detail it provides is not exacting and it is written in a clear and accessible way. It is generally considered the the best “road map” for finding your way through the complexities of Joyce’s novel. The third edition uses the page numbering and references to three commonly read editions of Ulysses: the Gabler ‘Corrected Text’ (86) edition, the Oxford University Press ‘World Classics’ edition (93), and the Penguin ‘Twentieth-Century Classics’ (1992) edition.
Ulysses Annotated is a specialised encyclopaedia of Ulysses which gives detail of the names, places, slang terms, religious rituals and so on which fill every page of the novel. It can be a bit cumbersome jumping back and forth between the novel and Gifford’s book, but as far as depth of detail there is probably no better reference book for helping you get the most out of Ulysses. The latest edition uses the page numbering and references to the Critical & Synoptic edition (Gabler 84) & the 1961 Random House edition – which is virtually identical to the current Modern Library & Vintage texts.
One of the first guides to the novel that was written was James Joyce’s Ulysses by Stuart Gilbert (it was written with some guidance and advice from Joyce himself). It is a clear and useful guide – though I’ve always found its tone more academic and stiff than Blamaires’ book.
One other option available now is to read Ulysses in its Kindle edition, or on any other tablet device, where you can check any reference on Wikipedia or Google. I’ve found that I’m doing this more and more, but I’ve also found that it distracts me from my reading.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Joyce’s style and technique in the first couple of chapters is the way the narrative moves from brief external descriptions of various objects or people and of dialogue to describing the thought process of Stephen Dedalus (and in later chapters Leopold Bloom). These thoughts are reactions to external objects or to nature, and to the other characters and what they do and say – but then these thoughts begin to react to other earlier thoughts and to random memories. In the first couple of chapters this stream of consciousness is not especially difficult to follow, despite Joyce’s reluctance to place these thought in context (or to use punctuation). However, in the third chapter, Dedalus’s thoughts fly off all over the place and it is here that you’ll need a good working knowledge of classical languages, history and literature, the history of philosophy and of philosophical investigation, of Irish history, of early twentieth century Irish politics, of the geography of Dublin, of Catholicism and so on and so on – to really get to grips with what’s happening. Or you can buy a guide – or use the internet.
If you are still unsure about reading this book, I think this Economist article on Why You Should Read Ulysses makes a good case.
If you are going to just get stuck into reading the book I have found that the book becomes more accessible when read out loud. Maybe it’s worth reading along to the audiobook of Ulysses? The audiobook read by Jim Brennan (who played Bishop Len Brennan in Father Ted) is excellent. It may seem odd reading the book whilst listening the audiobook of that book – but the last time I read Ulysses that’s what I did …and it was brilliant, thanks in no small part to Jim Brennan’s delivery. The price of the audiobook is daunting – but it’s way cheaper if you buy it via Audible (although you have to sign up). If you do sign up then you should be able to buy the audiobook for £3.99 at Audible UK.