Bloomsday Centennial

Jun. 16 - Two of the most significant influences on my sense of humor were a couple of ragged old oversized books on my parents' shelves. They were both anthologies of cartoons, one from The New Yorker and one from Esquire.

Many of the punch-lines have stayed with me over the years, although I can't always remember the cartoonist or magazine associated with any given cartoon.

One of my favorites featured two men on a pier gazing disinterestedly after a man drowning in the distant surf. "Au secours, au secours!" cries the drowning man. Says one of the bored gentleman to the other: "Either he's French or he's a terrible snob."

Another featured a lovely young couple in 1930s formalwear standing in the moonlight on a terrace outside a penthouse gala in Manhattan. The young woman stares dreamily at the young man, who stares up at the full moon shining down on the city. "On a night like this," the man says, "I look at the moon and all I can think is, 'Imagine the advertising potential!'"

Okay, they're not great, but they were hilarious when I was nine or ten and they seared themselves into my memory. Another, and an obvious classic, was this one:

Now hold that thought, please.

* * *

Today is a day that highlights a schism in the western intellectual world like none other. Today is the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday.

June 16, 1904, is the date on which all the events depicted in James Joyce's famous novel Ulysses take place. The earth has completed exactly 100 orbits of the sun since that date, so there's a great deal of excitement in Dublin , even though the book itself was published in 1922 and therefore cannot celebrate a real centennial until my unborn daughter is a senior in high school. There is probably also a lot of excitement in the sorts of intellectual circles in which I am not allowed to travel.

"Happy Bloomsday!" the straight-A English majors will greet one another joyously. "Yes yes yes!" they'll exclaim. It will all be terrific fun. They'll feel smart and proud and better than the rest of us, and more power to them for that. I don't begrudge other people their gloats.

Personally, however, I think we ought to exhume the remains of James Joyce and feed them to rabid squirrels.

Ulysses, the best novel ever?

So says the celebrated (and controversial) Random House Modern Library 100 Best Books of the 20th Century. So say thousands of literary snobs. So say millions of men and women who've never even read it.

I myself haven't read Joyce's Ulysses (although I've tried), but that's beside the point. The issue doesn't have anything to do with the quality of his work, but the anti-democratic sentiments of its supporters.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not one of those weiners that thinks something has to be popular to be good, or one of those cranks that refuses to read anything "challenging." I read Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from start to finish, including every footnote, but I would be the last person in the world to recommend anyone else do the same. (I'd recommend getting an abridged paperback version without any footnotes.) I spent weeks trying to read Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse without making any headway: finally I sat down one afternoon and read the whole (little) book in one sitting, and now consider it one of my favorite books of all time.

I would call Gibbon's masterwork one of the greatest histories of all time, because it succeeds brilliantly at what it sets out to achieve—as a work of history, not entertainment.

A novel is by definition a work of entertainment, and although I'm perfectly capable of struggling through a challenging novel, the fact that it's challenging doesn't necessarily make it "good." In the case of a novel, I'd have to say its value as entertainment is the most important measurement.

In other words, although I wouldn't say Murder on the Orient Express or The Shining were, in my opinion, "better" books than, say, Jane Eyre or The Idiot, that's only because the latter two were more enjoyable for me, personally, than the former two (which isn't to say they weren't also great fun). I'm guessing, however, that Agatha Christie and Stephen King have entertained more readers than Dostoyevsky and all the Brontes combined, so it would be hard for me to say that a Dostoyevsky novel was in any objective way superior to any given Hercule Poirot adventure. (I'm reading Peril at End House right now and enjoying it very much, thank you.)

I don't want to climb on the anti-intellectual bandwagon and rail at Joyce for being difficult. I consider my failure to read Ulysses a fault of my own, not Joyce's. On the other hand, calling a book that is best known for being monumentally difficult to read—and therefore often unread by persons otherwise interested in literature—the "greatest English-language novel of the 20th century" suggestions a definition of great that I can't get behind. If it's so goddam great, why do so many people have so many problems with it?

And that's the real source of my problem with the literary elitists: it's as though they think it's great because of, rather than in spite of, its difficulty. Anything that difficult must be good for us, and literature is too important not to be good for us!

They've made Ulysses is the literary equivalent of broccoli.

I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it.

Birthdays and Holidays

Today is the birthday of Tupac Shakur (1971), Joyce Carol Oates (1938), Erich Segal (1937), and Stan Laurel—who is not Clint Eastwood's father (1890).

It's Imre Nagy's Death Day in Hungary and Youth Day in South Africa.

Happy Hump Day!

2004, The Moron's Almanac™

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