Kevin Birmingham’s debut, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses (Penguin Pr., Jun.), offers an elegant account of the 15-year struggle over the publication of Joyce’s controversial masterpiece. Intrigued by this biography of a novel, I wrote to Birmingham via email with a few questions. Here’s what he had to say. (See “Editors’ Picks 2014,” LJ 2/15/14).—Annalisa Pesek
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
We take our freedoms to read and write books for granted, and I want readers to see how difficult—and how recent—the fight for literary freedom has been. James Joyce’s Ulysses is canonical partly because it was contraband. Its legalization made so many things possible for the writers who followed.
I’d like to remind people that books are dangerous and powerful, and Ulysses is the perfect example of that. Female sexuality simply wasn’t something an author could write about—it seemed to be a force that could break marriages and families apart. Joyce confronted those fears directly. Beyond that, Ulysses seemed to overturn all traditions, standards, and codes—it violated all of the rules of literature. In a world that was already skittish about falling empires, the lionization of Ulysses among certain men and women of letters seemed to confirm that something was seriously wrong with Western civilization, that we had reached the end of something. And they were right.
This story revisits a time of upheaval and war as well as an explosion of popular culture, literacy rates, urbanization, and immigration—and these factors made books that could “deprave and corrupt” the public even more frightening. We forget about the power of books because we have newer technologies to worry about (the Internet and video games), but the written word is still the primary vehicle for unsettling ideas.
Do you have advice for first-time Ulysses readers?
First, go slowly. Don’t expect to read Ulysses the way you read other books. Second, use Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated—a companion to Joyce’s novel. I’ve done my most recent reading with a book club, and I think groups are especially helpful with difficult novels. If you want to go the extra mile, check out Frank Delaney’s podcast, “Re: Joyce.” Delaney discusses the novel page by page in smart, fun, and incredibly detailed ten-minute podcasts. He’s approaching podcast No. 200 and is still only about ten percent of the way through the novel. He adds a new installment every week, and his enthusiasm is infectious.
Finally, and most important: be comfortable with not knowing everything. Writers typically cater to readers so that comprehension is as swift and smooth as possible. Stories and ideas are served to us as lists, slide shows, and TED talks, which means we’re less accustomed to anything obscure or time-consuming. Ulysses goes deeper than what even the savviest reader can absorb in one reading. Have faith that, in the end, the work will pay off. Years from now, you probably won’t remember the slide shows. You’ll remember Ulysses.
This is your first book. What was the most enjoyable part of writing it?
A thousand illuminating details—Ezra Pound’s childhood letter to Santa Claus; a radiograph of Joyce’s bad teeth; the books, maps, and upholstery in the library where Judge Woolsey read Ulysses. The story is important because of the way it changed modernism and literary freedom, but the long research process is thrilling because of the details. You go to archives looking for information, and the half-buried stories keep you there.