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The Reading

October 8, 2010

I have most recently dived into James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book I’ve always held at arm’s length the way an actor might hold the role of Hamlet at arm’s length, preferring instead to tackle it only at the height of their performance prowess. Ulysses somehow demands the height of a reader’s analytical prowess and is still often extremely puzzling.

I’m 24 and have no illusions about the “height of my reading career” being somehow present at this age, but I decided to risk a bad performance and read it anyway. I’m not sure how much I’m understanding; perhaps only the bawdier bits that first risked its publication because the book was considered vulgar, like the section that (at least I’m pretty sure) brings the reader right into the outhouse with a character doing his business. I was confused about what exactly I was reading, but eventually I understood what was going on and just sort of laughed out loud—here I was, straining over what was essentially a literary shit joke.

I think I’ll consider this a “first” of many readings; there’s certainly no way I’m finished with it. The best books mean something different to you at each reading and at each phase of life. The 17-year-old me never saw the same things in Paradise Lost as did the 22-year-old me did while working on my thesis.

The author perhaps never intended what I have gleaned from this first attempt, but it made sense to me. It’s that even one day can feel like ten years. The book alludes to The Odyssey, a ten-year journey, and yet it takes place in a single day. Not to mention that the very act of reading it can feel like an eternity, especially when it seems like Joyce is just being willfully obtuse. One day in Mongolia can sometimes feel like ten years too, when the power has gone out for the third time in a week and you’re sitting in a dark ger trying to figure out what to do with yourself until it’s time to go to bed: reading Ulysses by candlelight comes to mind, but then you think better of it. Why add to an already frustrating situation? Other days can certainly pass in the blink of an eye. For instance waking up this morning and realizing that somehow my watch is correct when it says October 8th. Where did that first week of this month go?

Things are slowly getting busier around here, and new responsibilities seem to crop up for me all over the place. I can sense my Mongolian life accelerating and it’s sort of everything I can do to keep it from getting out of control. When I first got here, I felt like I’d be stuck at home, relegated to counting my ger poles to stave off boredom, but all that seems to have changed in the last few weeks. I think if I let it, the whole town would be organizing English lessons for me to teach. It’s great to feel like I’m accomplishing things, but I just don’t want to get in over my head. Saying “No” has never been one of my strong suits, but I’m definitely starting to learn the art of “Yes, but…”

All my best,

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