A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

“To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.”

Starting an Important Book is a constricting moment. The weight of expectation fits snuggly, but I’m never sure if it’s expectation for the book or myself. I’m aware, after all, that if I don’t connect with one of the big hitters of the Western canon that the fault could lie with my own middling knowledge about (in this case) Irish politics, or a phrase’s literary context (could including an allusion to sex really have resulted in a ban? The mind boggles), or whether what now appears cliché does so because every other writer and their mum have already read and copied from this exact book time after time. As a History degree guy, so lacking any formal guidance about Literary Matters, I started browsing the internet and bugging my English degree friends about where to start with approaching Joyce. Everyone has an opinion: 

Try A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man first, since it’ll give you a good idea what to expect. / Strap your big boy pants and crack open Ulysses; there should be no half measures with this author, damnit. / Try Dubliners so you’ll get a feel for the city and how many strange moods this man can make you occupy. (No one suggested Finnegan’s Wake, and the only Irish person I asked scoffed and said “not to bother with the boring bastard.”)

I went with the simplest option, Dubliners, and by the end I thought I got it. By “it”, I mean why most people respect or love Joyce. By the end of A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, though, I realised I hadn’t even cracked the surface. This man has multitudes.

His style is changing constantly. While Dubliners was consistently sober in tone (if not content…), with ornate descriptions overlaying sparse, slice-of-life situations, social classes, and attitudes, Portrait is diverse and joyous. The protagonist lives at an emotional fever pitch, at the edge of having his brain boil over from the intensity:

“Pride and hope and desire like crushed herbs in his heart sent up vapours of maddening incense before the eyes of his mind.”  

“His eyes were dimmed with tears, and, looking humbly up to heaven, he wept for the innocence he had lost.” 

You get the idea. In the hands of a lesser writer this would come across as melodrama, but there’s a wry, ironic tone to the writing that makes our narrator, Stephen Douglas, come across as naive rather than insufferable. 

There’s a swarm of references to Irish politics and Catholic dogma that should be off putting, but most can be picked up from context and the rest never distracted me from the story. Even if I didn’t understand the exact situations being argued over, I understood the characters and so still maintained emotional investment. I’m surprised at how much this wasn’t an issue.

On the writing side, Joyce can make words sing. I mean it: there’s a showy, ecstatic tone that is more reminiscent of music than typical prose. In fact, ecstatic is a good word for this book. Even when the subject matter is dark and the novel gets dense, the intricate language stays elevated, varied and beautiful. 

Some sections are slower and denser than others, but I was always interested in where Stephen Douglas would go in life. He’s an emotional creature, and so you feel swept up in his happiness and guilty, in his innocence and excitement. That kind of immersion is rare and should be bloody well appreciated when it’s conjured up.

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach

“Kinsey wanted Dellenback to film his own staff. There are three ways to read that sentence, all of them true.”

If you’re the kind of person who would like to know the story of how researchers discovered that electrical dick machines can stimulate knee orgasms in paralysed people, oh boy, do I have a book for you.

To give you an idea of the tone of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, here are a selection of chapter titles:

  • Dating the Penis-Camera: Can a Woman Find Happiness with a Machine? [Spoiler: Yes!]
  • Re-Member Me: Transplants, Implants, and Other Penises of Last Resort
  • The Upsuck Chronicles: Does Orgasm Boost Fertility, and What Do Pigs Know About It?

This is a hilarious chronicle of science, and the ridiculous lengths some people will go to figure out the most efficient way their bits can fit in people/objects. After Bonk you’ll come away with ridiculous stories, an appreciation for Roach’s sense of humour and renewed gratefulness for puns. This thing is almost annoyingly funny. I kept sniggering, but really, really didn’t want strangers sitting near me on the train to ask me what I was reading. “Oh no, it’s not like that, it’s funny, I promise. Why are you moving seats? There’s no pictures!”

Mary Roach, for our entertainment and knowledge, performed the following acts during her research: measured the length between her clitoris and urethra; observed penile surgery in person, during which metal shafts were inserted right up a man’s shaft; had sex with her husband inside a confining magnetic tube so that researchers could see what people look like inside during the beast with two backs. She then managed to make my most prominent impressions of her as a person ‘shrewd, hard-working and extremely funny’, instead of ‘the woman who was really into weird sex stuff’. She worked too hard for me not to recommend this enthusiastically.

Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking by Daniel Dennett

“Darwinian thinking does live up to its billing as universal acid: it turns the whole traditional world upside down, challenging the top-down image of designs flowing from that genius of geniuses, the Intelligent Designer, and replacing it with the bubble-up image of mindless, motiveless cyclical processes churning out ever-more robust combinations until they start replicating on their own, speeding up the design process by reusing all the best bits over and over.”

An attempt to teach readers how to “think reliably and even gracefully about really hard questions,” Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking goes over rough intellectual terrain — consciousness, determinism, artificial intelligence, evolution, all decidedly daunting hills and valleys — with assurance and wit. If you have some patience, you’ll finish with clearer ways to examine and express your own thoughts — or, at least, that’s how I felt.

There are some admittedly shocking jumps in difficulty. More than once I found myself, after twenty pages of lucid explanations, coming across a paragraph I had to read five times just to make certain I had understood it… and even then I wouldn’t have bet money on it. This is the kind of book that will make you feel confident one moment and absurdly out of your depth the next. When you’re jumping from physics, biology, computer science and cognitive psychology, that may just be the nature of the beast, but it fortunately never feels as though Dennett is being an obscurantist. He values lucidity, and by the end of this thing I was grateful.

Dennett manages to glide from one mind-bending mystery to another and address each with wit, clarity, and frightening intelligence. It’s impressive that a man so fiercely bright can keep his work from being too intimidating: his tone is that of a kindly uncle, guiding you with patience through some of the most difficult conundrums your brain can handle.

While this was sometimes dense to the point that it hurt my head, if you find any of the topics interesting you’ll be missing out on a feast for your brain if you don’t give Intuition Pumps a shot.