I briefly abandoned Baltimore in favor of Philadelphia last weekend to celebrate the only international holiday I know of that is devoted to a single work of art. It was a powerful argument for the joys to be found in immediacy.
The celebrated work was James Joyce's novel "Ulysses," the greatest of literature's Great Unread Books. The holiday is "Bloomsday," June 16, anniversary of the day in 1904 in which the book's principal events fictionally took place.
There is sound argument that "Ulysses" is the most influential novel written in English in the 20th century. I will not try to make that case here. But a small bit of evidence is the celebration each year of Bloomsday not only in Dublin, where the book is set, but in such spots as Hong Kong and New York, Rome and Tokyo.
I met a man years ago who claimed to have celebrated Bloomsday in Barrow, Alaska, centered around an out-loud reading of the book, the customary ritual. In Barrow on June 16, there is no night at all. The party, my source insisted, went on for some 72 hours, twice the time of an intense, unbroken, sober reading aloud of "Ulysses." Sobriety had no role: He confessed hearing only about the first 100 pages or so and the very end of Molly Bloom's legendary closing soliloquy.
My guess is it never happened. I go on preferring to believe it did.
But Bloomsdays will be real and alive so long as the English language is read. And Philadelphia has a genuine claim to be the focus.
A Special Glory
One of the special glories of that city, where until recently I lived, is the Rosenbach Museum and Library. It may be the most important collection of literary manuscripts and texts in the United States unattached to any university or government entity. It is a wonderful declaration that private diligence can nourish culture generally and serve scholarly devotions, concurrently.
The Rosenbach owns and contains the manuscript of "Ulysses," scrawled intensely across 778 pages of small notebooks and loose sheets of various sizes, most around 7 by 9 inches, some covered on both sides and others on only one, in Joyce's spidery, close-to-undecipherable handwriting, left margins widening unevenly but relentlessly down each page.
The Rosenbach filled two days with its fourth consecutive Bloomsday, which I helped with a bit. Friday was an 11-hour celebration of the book as a sort of symbol of the glory of all novels: reading, toasting, analyzing, chatting. The next day too was 11 hours, in which more than 200 people watched and discussed some or all of four films based on Joyce's work.
Bloomsday proper began with a reading, from noon to 5:30. At times about 225, and never fewer than 100, people listened from the Rosenbach's steps, sitting in folding chairs or on neighbors' stoops or the street or sidewalk.
Among the 50 or so readers were actors and academics, politicians and poets, lawyers and librarians, doctors, judges, clergy, curators, accountants, artists, art dealers, editors, civic leaders, columnists, and a scoundrel or two.
There was a reception and a dinner, then the day ended with a lively, lovely panel discussion of the book and of selected bits of Joseph Strick's more than two-hour-long 1967 film based on it.
Mr. Strick was joined by Milo O'Shea, the film's star in the role of Leopold Bloom, Bloomsday's namesake, and National Public Radio's Ray Suarez. The three led about 400 people through the thickets.
About half of Friday's readers had never read any more of Joyce than the five-minute-long texts that a small subcommittee had chosen for them. Others knew it well.
Edward Rendell, mayor of Philadelphia, read with vigor and self-confidence. Some people of less assertive means and stations were quieter, their voices almost wispy, but entirely intelligible. There were all sorts of voices in between. There were Dublin voices, and the edgier sounds of
Cork, as well as a dozen or so regional American inflections.
But the book's the thing.
All through both days, there was compelling excitement in the conversations among people who know the book well and those who knew nothing of it.
Frank people confessed to unyielding befuddlement. There is a curse among a certain subtribe of Joyce academics that drives them to insist pompously on the book's inaccessibility, its dense cryptography - designed entirely, I believe, to bloat that subtribe's sense of exclusive self-importance. But little of that sneaked in, except for one early Saturday panel, so let's let it pass.
But in two dozen or more conversations that I eavesdropped on or eased myself into, there was excitement, exploration, discovery. If a quarter of the people who, after fleeting tastes of it, pledged to go back and read "Ulysses" hold to that vow, it will constitute a substantial expansion of excitement of mind and personal culture.
The lesson: If you seek on first - or 10th - reading of Joyce to unscramble every level of meaning and allusion, your quest will never end. The pedants will have conquered you.
So the argument:
If you have never read Joyce, or have tried and failed, do this:
Read it the way you drink beer on a hot day. Don't stop to think about it. Read it as if diving into fresh water in August, as an act of excitement, of appetite, gulping, swilling.
You'll win. And, most probably, you will never turn back.