My big read

1st August 2003 at 01:00
Continuing our dip into the BBC's Big Read top 100 books, Tom Deveson gives two good reasons for reading Ulysses

There used to be two bad reasons for reading Ulysses. Some considered it a "dirty" book, banned by the authorities and obtainable only from Paris, with the attendant frisson of attention from Customs and police. Others believed it would secure your reputation as an intellectual. Neither now applies. We hear swearing and talk about masturbation any night on TV and the notion of an established intelligentsia is dead.

Today, almost 100 years after the events it imagines and describes, Ulysses remains a wonder-book for two good reasons. That's not to say that its pages are free from complexity. It's full of erudite puns, classical parallels and obscure allusions, all of which have generated a mountain of scholarly commentary and are nonetheless hugely enjoyable. But you can delight in it without needing months of research.

James Joyce magically displays countless varieties of language within the novel's 900 pages. His disciplined and painful writing - seven years of intense effort - makes for marvellous reading. There is the poetic evocation of sea, shore and sky; Bloom's vivid inner monologues as he moves through Dublin during his tedious but eventful day; the hallucinatory drama of Nighttown; the hilarious catechism of the penultimate scene; and the 25,000 unpunctuated, unparalleled words of Molly's final sleepy sentence.

Above all, the book is warmly human. The Dubliners we meet are sharply specified, but they are also the inhabitants of any place where people live, work, love, drink and argue. Stephen is a prig and a relentless searcher after truth, but he is also the astonishing man who will write the novel in which he appears. Bloom has shameful secrets and silly ideas, but he is good-hearted and affectionate. And Molly has the last word - an enormous Yes.

See www.bbc.co.ukartsbigread for the full list, resources and details of related programmes. Details of British Library Big Read events on 020 7412 7332

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