Happy Bloomsday


Today is June 16, the closest thing international literature has to a holiday. Appropriately enough, Bloomsday marks a fictional event: The plus-or-minus 18-hour time frame covered in James Joyce's 1922 novel Ulysses, which depicts the activities of a group of Dublin residents on June 16, 1904. 

This year June 16 falls on a Thursday, as it did in 1904. Hopeless nerds the world over are celebrating. Here are some activities in Tel Aviv, Chicago, Kansas City and Los Angeles. There's even a Bloomsday event in Ocean City, N.J., which I'd like to believe is organized by my old friend Dave Swift, a longtime Ocean City hand who was always interested in organizing Joyce-related events even though he never as far as I knew cracked open a copy of Ulysses

That may actually be the point. My 2004 article on the Bloomsday phenomenon covered the contingent nature of literary reputation. Even academic darlings like Ulysses live or die based on popular support. The June 16 celebrants are not so much interested in literary merit as in midsummer fun and a pop version of Irishness that's more urbanized than the versions presented by such icons of the Old Sod as Warwick Davis and Lucky the Lucky Charms leprechaun. (It's a special testament to Ulysses' durability that it still attracts fans despite the rotten stewardship of the Joyce estate, which throws the wet blanket of copyright on would-be adapters ranging from the singer Kate Bush to the biologist Craig Venter.) 

Something I didn't mention back then has become more clear as I have seen friends and enemies get career boosts from publishing books (regardless of whether they sell enough copies even to make back their advances) while gradually losing my own inclination to read for pleasure. A book is really more valuable as a placeholder or conversation-starter than as something you read. Even in this Kindleriffic age, sales figures for books are vanishingly small relative to other media, but books are excellent for putting a point on a general idea, giving people a reason to interview you, redefining conventional wisdom, providing fodder for adaptations in other media and otherwise moving the public conversation along. I remain skeptical about the long-term future of the book you read from page one to the end, and especially of e-readers' efforts to reproduce that format electronically. But books still have enormous prop value and snob appeal. The old joke about Ulysses is that it's a book many people talk about and nobody reads. In that way as in so many others, it may have been ahead of its time.