Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 16, 2010

Ulysses and Us (2009), by Declan Kiberd

I heard about Ulysses and Us, The Art of Everyday Living when I was doing the group reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses that led to my Disordered Thoughts of an Amateurseries of posts.  So when I was in the Dublin Writers Museum shop, and saw it on the shelf, I abandoned my resolution not to buy any books with which to burden the suitcase – and bought it straight away, expecting to enjoy it.  Ulysses and Me is said to ‘reclaim’ Ulysses for the ordinary reader, and to rescue it from the academics who have so over-analysed it that it is now rarely included even in undergraduate reading lists because it’s considered too ‘difficult’.

Well maybe it wasn’t the right book to read while travelling, or maybe I should have read it as a chapter-by-chapter guide during the reading of Ulysses, but I was disappointed in it.  I’ve read Ulysses four times now, and each time I find interesting new things in it and I understand more of it.  Yet there were parts of Kiberd’s book that seemed to be about a different book entirely, and I doubt that it would encourage very many people to either start or continue with James Joyce’s book.   It doesn’t make me want to rush home and read it for the fifth time to see what Kiberd is on about either.  I’m not the slightest bit tempted to add weight to the suitcase by taking it back home either: it will be left here in Avila Spain where no doubt some hapless chambermaid will puzzle over it only briefly before consigning it to the bin.

Searching for the cover image for this post, I noticed that most of the online reviews of Ulysses and Us are written by scholars or academics.  That’s no surprise: few reviewers would be game to take it on if they didn’t feel reasonably au fait with the Ulysses itself.  But Kiberd claims to offer Ulysses back to ‘ordinary readers’ because Joyce claimed to have written it for us.  So really, it’s an ‘ordinary reader’ who should review Ulysses and Us.  (That’s why there’s a picture of a ‘dumb blonde’ on the cover, but Marilyn Monroe wasn’t a dumb blonde at all, so it’s an offensive allusion IMO).

For what it’s worth, in my opinion Ulysses is accessible to anyone who is reasonably well read.  There will be bits that are incomprehensible, and it’s best to simply move on to the next bits; re-readings will help and they will be a labour of love for this most satisfying of books.  But my caveat is crucial: someone who hasn’t read those works usually labelled the ‘canon’ isn’t going to enjoy the word games and parodies of literary styles that Joyce plays with.  And reading Kiberd’s book won’t help if that’s the case.

There are some interesting ideas in Ulysses and Us, but the heavy-duty Irish nationalism irritated me.  Yes, Joyce wrote the ultimate book about Dublin, but (a) you don’t need to have been to Dublin to love the book and (b) let’s not forget that Joyce (like most of Ireland’s great writers) abandoned his homeland and the religious and political strictures that made writing impossible there.  The stuff about Bloom being androgynous, a feminine male, a precursor to what is now called a metrosexual, nearly sabotaged my mental picture of Poldy strolling about in Dublin, and some of the Jungian psychology was more incomprehensible than anything in Ulysses.

IMO reading a whole book about Ulysses really isn’t necessary, there’s plenty of accessible stuff online if you want some help every now and again.  But Sean O’Hagan at The Guardian thought Ulysses and Me was terrific, so if you’re a university student with a thesis on Ulysses or James Joyce to write, his opinion is probably more useful to you than mine is.

PS There’s are guides to the canon such as Jane Gleeson White’s Classics, or Great Books by David Denby, but they are not substitutes for reading the books.

Author: Declan Kiberd
Title:  Ulysses and Us, The Art of Everyday Living
Publisher: Faber & Faber 2009
ISBN: 9780571242559
Source: Personal copy, bought from the Dublin Writers Museum shop, €10.99


  1. I enjoyed this book ,kilbride opens Ulysses up in wondeful way i will have this at hand the next time I reread Ulysses ,hope you had lovely day in the dublin,such a wonderful city ,all the best stu


  2. I’m very interested with your opinion here Lisa as I fondled this book multiple times whilst I was in Dublin. Seemed a rather Dublin book to buy. I nearly fell under it’s thrall. I remember walking towards a cashier with it once, but then put it down again. I haven’t read Ulysses once, let alone 4 times of course. I wondered if it might be useful as Ulysses for Dummies (or those too lazy to read the actual book), seeing as I was too stupid to get to the Ulysses Walking Tour. I’m probably glad that I put it down.


    • LOL Louise I haven’t seen Ulysses for Dummies though it has great appeal, but my point about this one is that it’s being marketed as a book that brings Joyce to ‘ordinary people’. And it’s not. There’s a whole chapter about Ulysses and Hamlet and how they have the same issues and let’s be honest, do most ‘ordinary people’ know Hamlet?


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