I wrote the following article for a magazine called Shadows Express, and they were kind enough to publish it a few years ago. Unfortunately, that publication has since closed up shop. As such the article is no longer available to the general public, so I figured what the hell I'm feeling lazy why not reprint some old material. Well, that and it makes a salient point about the nature of story telling I feel is often lost on academics.
Some of the greatest books ever written are inherently flawed. They lack one critical element which makes them paradoxically imperfect. On one hand they often are brilliant, insightful, belletristic examples of the human condition in myriad poignant expressions. However, the other side of the coin is that they are inaccessible. The average everyday reader isn't likely to ever pickup a book like Ulysses, and if they do they're highly unlikely to finish it. I know few English majors who have the tenacity to scale the Everest-like peak of Joyce's prose, considering such quotes as:
"No question her name is puissant who aventried the dear corse of our Agenbuyer, Healer and Herd, our mighty mother and mother most venerable and Bernadus saith aptly that she hath an omnipotentiam deiparae supplicem, that is to wit, an almightiness of petition because she is the second Eve..."
Many would immediately argue something akin to, "Ulysses isn't for everyone." Well, that's the real shame isn't it? At the heart of Joyce's novel is an exploration of humanity to which anyone can relate. Ulysses overflows with characters looking for connections to other people while attempting to hide and/or radically embrace that which sets them apart from society at large; it's about how we affect people with everything we are, even the lies we only tell ourselves. The significance of the novel's humanity far outweighs the artistic devices it employs, and I dare say the same is true for other mountainesque books like Gravity's Rainbow or Infinite Jest. These are all novels about the human condition told with such depth and poetry as to make them life changing experiences. Yet, the difficulty inherent in reading these novels makes them inaccessible to a wider audience. As such, these works are consequently confined to a small circle of readers. So it falls to those who have scaled these peaks to tell the rest of the world what lies at the summit.
Too often academics focus on the use of language in literature, the blending of historical allusions with contemporary events, and other critical dimensions which rarely share the real beauty of a story. Alice in Wonderland may be an allegory about the madness Lewis Caroll saw in the emerging mathematics of his era, but most people want to hear about the adventures of a young girl in a strange dreamlike world, not the symbolic intentions of tea parties, March Hares, and linguistic riddles. Therefore, it is the responsibility of those who love literature to share the emotional impact of great works with those who will likely never delve into them on their own.
I have a friend who enjoys Monty Python; however, what she loves is watching people retell episodes from the show. The retelling may flub a few lines, or not have the same comical grace as the Python alums, but she says there's something more satisfying about the sketches in that context because people add their enjoyment to the telling. I can't imagine anyone blissfully relating a breakdown of the comedic mechanics and satirical subtleties found in the Ministry of Silly Walks sketch. However, I have seen someone ecstatically reenact the scene. And that's what people should do with great literature. After all, the purpose of storytelling is to share.
Joyce, James. Ulysses (the 1934 text, as corrected and reset in 1961). New York: Random House, 1992. pg. 384