Why Bloomsday Works

James Joyce
James Joyce

This is the third year I’ve taken part in D.C.’s marathon reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses at the Petworth Citizen and Upshur Street Loyalty Bookstore. The tradition takes place on June 16, the day in which the action of the book happens (and the day in 1904 when Joyce first went out with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle).

I first heard about Bloomsday when I lived in Philadelphia and worked near the Rosenbach library, custodian of James Joyce’s original manuscript. I wouldn’t read the book until years later, but the buzz around the annual celebration helped build my interest in the book and its intimidating reputation.

Each year, I’ve wondered why this works with Ulysses and why there aren’t annual marathons for other great works. Are there are lessons here for building such a tradition? Perhaps around a book by an under-represented voice in the literary canon? A few ideas:

  • The action of the book takes place in a single day you can schedule on the calendar (June 16).
  • That day is not during a busy time of the year. School is out or winding down. It is not in competition with major holidays.
  • The book is long enough that reading it in a day is a collective accomplishment.
  • The book has a reputation for being difficult.
  • Difficult things are easier when you do them together.
  • The book is less difficult when read aloud. Its musical qualities and pacing emerge. And a reader in the spotlight will plow right through challenging passages of obscure references, nonsense words, and lines in Latin, French, Italian and other languages.
  • It is more fun when you’re in a crowd that chuckles at things you didn’t quite catch.
  • Almost every page of the book contains morsels and punchlines and musical language to enjoy even if you aren’t familiar with what came before or what comes next.
  • The more you stick around for, and the more you dive in to the book hour by hour (or year by year) the better it gets.

Do some of these elements remind you of other books? What book would you like to read out loud with friends once a year?