Reading James Joyce

“The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole Life to reading my works.” –James Joyce

This summer, I seriously begin that journey of devotion. Okay, not really; settle down. Of course, Joyce was joking in the above quote. Well, joking in a truly Joyceian way that lets you know he was completely serious. But the point is that I am reading a lot of Joyce this summer. And actually, it’s completely voluntary. (TWIST!)

To anyone who’s ever read James Joyce, he’s a surprising choice for a summer beach read. His work is heavy, dense, and sometimes just downright incomprehensible (Finnegan’s Wake, anybody?). Nonetheless, I find myself perched by the pool this summer, cool drink in hand, and Dubliners by my side. Why, you ask? Because strangely enough, out of everything in the world, I chose to study James Joyce.

"Nothing says summertime reading like a little Levinas."-Entertainment Weekly

“Nothing says summertime reading like a little Levinas.”-Entertainment Weekly

This foray into depressing Irish Lit (is there even non-depressing Irish lit?) is for my Senior Honors Thesis Project coming up this fall. Honors students are invited to spend a semester studying the interdisciplinary subject of their choice and then present their thesis at the end of the semester to students and faculty. I’ve chosen to explore James Joyce and notions of Irishness, and honestly, I couldn’t be more excited.

For those that are still confused as to why I equate James Joyce with positive feelings, let me back up a little. You see, I decided to become an English major because of James Joyce. After reading some of his work in high school, I was immediately entranced. He was complicated, unique, and most of all, puzzling. I can’t say that I always enjoyed reading Joyce, but I can say that he challenged the way I thought and forced me to grow as a student of literature merely to keep up with him.

And once I experienced this feeling of being challenged into growth, I knew it was what I sought in my college education. I wanted to go to college to read James Joyce. The only problem is, in my three years at Drake, I never came across a Joyce class. I’ve read things I never knew about and been challenged in so many other ways, but I still haven’t gotten the chance to study the one man who drove me to this point. So, with this Honors Thesis process, I have the power to change all that. I’ll be forming my own class, doing my own readings, and doing my best to challenge myself as much as Joyce challenges me. And who knows? Maybe this is just the start of a lifetime of devotion.

In Theory

Michel Foucault. It’s a name that strikes fear into the hearts of a lot of undergraduates. He’s the Voldemort of the humanities in that he can be kind of the worst, but we also wouldn’t really be ourselves without him. And, yes, that comparison may be a little extreme. I sincerely doubt Foucault ever said “avada kedavra” in his entire life, but he is scary because his work is dense, wide-ranging, and full of it’s own language of terms and lingo. And, yet, the man was definitely brilliant, and in a lot of ways, the biggest influence on modern humanities studies.

The text for Literary Theory Class. Yep, it's kind of intense.

The text for Literary Theory Class. Yep, it’s kind of intense.

This semester, I’ve gotten the chance to study Foucault and many others through my literary theory and criticism class. And while many groan merely at the thought of literary theory, I absolutely love it. The class experience has been the quintessential example of why I came to Drake: a brilliant professor teaching something I’m really passionate about with a small enough class that I can have a really active role in class discussions. Starting with the ancient Greeks, we’ve moved through the history of literary study examining the works of theorist from Virginia Woolf to Edward Said. And I’ve learned absolutely a ton along the way.

I’m so grateful for this experience partially because I may not get many others like it. Since I won’t be able to go to grad school, I’m counting on my Drake classes to present me with some of the higher level studies I’d otherwise be missing. The base of literary knowledge I’ve gained in this class has informed the way I see the arts and even content in my other classes. It’s good stuff to know. Also just so that if I ever go to a super-hip artsy dinner party I can join in the conversation with a Marxist reading of The Great Gatsby or something. (Clearly I’ve never been to one of those parties, but I’m assuming there are people in knit hats by the vegan food table talking about such things).

But honestly, this class has presented me with more that just fuel for snobby dinner parties. I’ve gained real knowledge in that I’ve had to work really hard to understand some of the content, but it’s been more than worth it. I’ve seen myself challenged in new ways in English studies and as a result, I know I’ve grown as a student and a thinker. And sorry if that sounds like a lame motivational poster for never giving up on learning, but it’s true. This is one class where I’m just really excited to go learn, even if that learning involves a certain long-winded fellow named Foucault.

Hawke From a Handsaw

I love Hamlet. A lot. And I know that’s a strange thing to say because so many of my comrades drudged or sparknoted their way through the play in high school, but it’s always been one of my favorites. Hamlet honestly has everything you could ever want in a piece of literature: violence, romantic drama, existential angst, and of course, pirates. It’s not a perfect play by any means, but it is a beautiful, deep, and dark one, and that’s just great for me.

The problem was that until I came to Drake, I had a hard time finding others who understood my love for Prince Hamlet (my love for Prince Harry, on the other hand, was very well appreciated). Even in my excellent English classes, it was difficult to fully connect with other students over the play. And while there were a few other Shakespeare-fanatics, I just always assumed I was a little strange for spending my free time reading sonnets and watching the complete works of Kenneth Branagh. And, yes, I probably am still strange, but at least I now know that I’m not alone.

At Drake, I’ve found some incredible friends and English majors who feel the same way about Shakespeare as I do. In fact, I’m currently in a Shakespeare class where we’re spending a couple weeks studying the rotten state of Denmark. We’ve read the play, looked at some adaptations and scholarship and even just watched my all-time favorite film version of Hamlet staring the artful, angsty Ethan Hawke.

And while I’ve read the play a million times before, it makes all the difference in the world to share the experience with other passionate Shakespeare fans. We can talk about the heavy stuff that goes on in the play, but also just joke around about Polonius or discuss the pros and cons of Julia Stiles’ baggy pants in the film. I really am in a community of learners who understand me, and for that alone, the college experience has been worth it.