Everyone recognizes that guy who specializes in fake cerebralness. He’s all about the pose. You’ll encounter him at the café on a Sunday afternoon when you’re powering through your hot chocolate, and there he’ll be, sliding his copy of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita ever-closer to the woman seated at his side, as if to say, “Behold, milady, do you not vouchsafe me as an impressive reader?” He’s into thickness, but not that type of thickness, you lowly plebeians!
Other books suit his pose-based purposes—War and Peace, some Proust, Don Quixote. Gaddis’s The Recognitions. This is typically a guy thing. The same sort of guy who is reminiscent of that person in your building without a lot happening in their life who becomes the co-op president and turns into this officious little tyrant going around measuring the widths of doormats. They’ll review books online, fancying themselves a one-man tribunal for educated taste, though they have no taste at all, given that most of what they do comes down to affectations. Trying to look smart without being smart. And looking like a deep reader without reading much at all.
Ownership of the book is huge. Being seen with the book out in public is bigger still. The female version of this sort of person is more prone to opt for a tote bag from some literary journal, and leave it at that. It’s a guy who prefers the “bask in my mighty tome!” routine. He’s intellectual cool guy—and it’s his type of attitude that can make other people loath to read books they might love to have read.
When I was in high school, I used to ask for two things for Christmas: CDs and books. I’d rip open the wrapping paper and there would be a Hank Williams box set, say, and a novel I have now loved for a long time, which is frequently touted as a big, scary, impenetrable novel that only the smartest of the smart can read—and even then with assorted skeleton keys and additional books of annotations for help!—and if you are not one of these people, you best abandon all hope before even trying to understand this book!
This would be Ulysses, by James Joyce, which came out 100 years ago, and has been commonly heralded as the Best Novel Ever Written. I feel like I should underline and bold that for affect, or you can just imagine me using my best voice of God impression. Citizen Kane had a lengthy stay at the top of the Best Film Ever Made pile, and in rock and roll there was Sgt. Pepper, and in jazz Kind of Blue. F. Scott Fitzgerald, over-awed by what he had read with Ulysses, turned up on Joyce’s lawn, drunk, literally on his knees in tribute, which scared the hell out of Joyce, and made him concerned for Fitzgerald’s well-being.
Fitzgerald could be a fan boy—his need to worship Ernest Hemingway and Hemingway’s one-note style of writing is a blemish on Fitzgerald’s usually sound critical record—but few writers have ever had a better understanding of what makes prose work. Fitzgerald knew that Joyce had done something no one had ever done, and I think he knew it in a way that has become lost to us over time, on account of the mythical way in which the novel is regarded, and those would-be intellectual edge-lords of the coffee house who are always there to tell you that, sure, they’re reading Ulysses for the tenth time, but it takes a special brand of person. This is hogwash, and we should talk about why, and why now is the time to read this novel.