Summer Reading: James Joyce

Contrary to popular belief, ​English teachers haven’t read every work in the literary canon. Despite my best efforts, I only manage to make little dents in my ceiling-high pile of to-get-to books. Every year I add everything from classics to nonfiction to politics to fluff to this collection, thinking that I’ll catch up during the summer, and then every summer I find myself attending at least one education workshop or seminar that requires its own stack of reading, and the others are doomed to cobwebs. 

Last year I moved to Atlanta for the month of July to study Communism in America with Harvey Klehr at Emory University. We read Whittaker Chambers, Richard Wright, John Steinbeck, etc. Fabulous and fascinating, highly recommend. 

This July found me studying the history of the Grand Coulee Dam, and training to teach AP English. 

Tackling the AP course this year, I have impetus to buckle down and read more classics. Today I am paying homage to James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I just finished. My previous exposure to Joyce was a few snippets in college to illustrate linguistic experimentation. We didn’t read an entire work that I can remember. 

My gut reaction to Portrait: I really enjoyed the first four chapters. Joyce takes me on a nostalgic journey back to childhood, experiencing the innocent world bubble through a child’s sensibilities. His subtle changes in descriptive imagery and maturity grow as Stephen’s experiences and awareness increase. I love the countless allusions and historical references; the Penguin Classics edition, as pictured, provides an exhaustive notes section annotating these. I found myself flipping back and forth constantly to check my knowledge and understanding, particularly about Irish revolutionaries and Catholic tradition. 

Joyce loses me in the fifth chapter, though. Intellectually, I get it. The evolution of boy to man, immature to mature, servile to free.  The myth of Icarus and Daedalus, flying. But it feels self-indulgent to me in its philosophical rambling. Pedantic and didactic. And I don’t know if this is because it’s supposed to. 

Frankly, I don’t want to teach this book in my AP course. I just don’t like it enough to reread it, and I don’t know that I want to subject high school students to it. There are way too many other fun challenging novels waiting to be read.  

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