Great American Read: Part 1

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Lauren John actually hated the novel that changed her life. Here’s her Perspective, part of KQED’s collaboration with PBS on ‘The Great American Read’.

On June 16, 1904, in Dublin, Ireland a fictional salesman named Leopold Bloom woke up and fed the cat. It was a simple act in what was about to become a very complex day.

In January 1975, at a college in upstate New York, the very real 17-year-old me read about Bloom’s adventures. The novel was ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce—and it changed my life. Never mind that I hated ‘Ulysses’ and still do. I changed because I dared to read a book that people smarter than me have called the best and most difficult novel ever written in the English language.

I knew that there was going to be a class focused solely on ‘Ulysses’, but wanted to avoid it. James Joyce was for the English majors who were already published at age 15, had been to Europe and could balance a wine glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

But then Ron, my editor on the student newspaper, asked if I was going to enroll.


No, I answered meekly. I was too scared.

Ron looked at me with an alpha writer scorn-- already well developed in his teenage psyche.

“And you call yourself an English major.”

Realizing that I would rather be intellectually scorned for something I did, rather than something I avoided, I signed up. I read ‘Ulysses’, line by line, with a dictionary. I read the Joyce scholars. I studied Irish history and Greek mythology so that at least I could understand the jokes and puns. I wondered why censors had once banned this book that nobody understood. I had yet to learn that censors rarely understand the books they ban.

I got an A. Ron got a B+, but he grew up to become a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Twice.

Struggling with Ulysses changed my life because it gave me the discipline to decipher hard books. It gave me a literary arsenal of concepts like metaphors and epiphanies. It gave me the confidence to discuss difficult books with anyone anywhere. So when the Shakespeare seminar limited to 10 honor students appeared, I applied without hesitation and was in. And guess what? I loved Shakespeare. Still do.

With a Perspective, I’m Lauren John.

Lauren John teaches English at Menlo College. Her Perspective is part of KQED”s collaboration with PBS on ‘The Great American Read.’