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Joyce and Ulysses on Twitter?

June 6, 2011

When I did my English degree I spent quite a bit of time on James Joyce.  I even considered doing a PhD dissertation on Ulysses.  I’ve had a piece published in The James Joyce Quarterly and also generated some discussion with a novel interpretation of a chapter of Ulysses.

The reason that I’m telling you this is because my friend and fellow literature enthusiast, Karen, has told me about an exercise that will be taking place on June 16-17.  June 16 is known by Joyce fans as “Bloomsday” because Ulysses describes the activities of Mr. Leopold Bloom on June 16, 1904.  Devotees of Joyce around the world have all sorts of commemorations every June 16 and the truly devout make the journey to Dublin to walk the route described in the book (stopping frequently at the pubs along the way).


This year there is a new event and it is the one making news.  Someone has dreamed up a project to tweet the entirety of Ulysses over the course of the day.  It is an impressive logistics effort.  The action in the novel covers 24 hours and the project involves 96 people tweeting a part of the novel in 15 minute chunks over the course of 24 hours. 

This isn’t exactly a real time re-enactment or anything.  That would be impossible.  The idea is more that bursts of tweets distilling down chapters of the book will go out over the course of the day.  As the website about the project says, “Part of the fun . . . is to see how different minds & souls wrestle with the daunting task of recasting 8-10 pages of the rich and free-flowing novel in just 4-6 tweets.”

For those of you who may not be familiar with one or both, Ulysses is a 265,000 word novel and a tweet is limited to 140 characters.  So there will be a bit of condensation.

It’s hard for me to figure out exactly what this project really is.  I think that ultimately the person who came up with the idea is just curious to see what sorts of things people come up with.  Joyce loved playing around with words and you have to enjoy that sort of thing to like Joyce—so it stands to reason that a bunch of Joyce fans would have fun trying to capture some of his phraseology in highly condensed form.  I could see Shakespeare fans trying to do it to a play or two or even Harry Potter fans tweeting a book or two.  It may even have already been done.

My guess is that things like this happen a lot on Twitter and this one is getting a lot of publicity because the New York Times picked up the story.  That unleashed the predictable firestorm of outrage on one side and a celebration of the joys of technology on the other side.  One side bemoans this experiment as yet another example of technology undermining culture and the other side urges that more be done along these lines.  One overzealous high school teacher asked “how cool would it be” for students to take “ponderous novels” and “cut out words that are unnecessary – re-word, re-think, re-write, re-mix, & be creative!”  I’m not sure how a student identifies the unnecessary words in Pride and Prejudice or re-thinks To Kill a Mockingbird, but, as we’ve seen before, technology lets us do it, so why not?

The more I think about it, it seems that this Bloomsday tweet exercise is a prime example of how social media has fulfilled the futurist dream of the technocrats.  In the 80s and 90s, futurists were predicting global teams coming together do work on projects and problem solve without ever actually meeting each other.  Here a group of people are doing just that.  Whether the output of their effort has any interest or value outside of the group is unknowable and perhaps irrelevant.  The bottom line is that the technology now exists to enable that kind of activity so people are engaging in that activity. 

When I was an agent of global capitalism, we hired those futuristic consultants to tell us how we could do what Facebook and Twitter now let everyone do.  We had a need for global teams to work together—we sought a solution because we had a need. 

It’s different today.  Instead of a need in search of a solution we have solutions in search of needs.  And that is why we get the tweeting of Ulysses.  No one woke up and said that the world would be a better place and the National Archives would be enriched by a tweeted version of Ulysses.  But we’re getting one.  Because we can do it, not because we want or need it.

A day or two after I heard about the Ulysses project I had a synchronistic moment while reading an article in the May/June 2011 issue of Engineering Insight.  It’s not my usual first choice of reading material, but I try to be eclectic.  The article was about students being the driving force behind the development of new technology and it included the following statement:  “if a concept can offer one iota of instant pleasure, the waiting mass will test it and draw to itself another set of evaluators from within itself . . .”

I’m not sure but I think that is one definition for “going viral” and my initial reaction was alarm at the implication that all it takes for something to succeed is for it to produce an “iota of instant pleasure.” 

But then I realised that is why I like to read literature.  And then I realised that Ulysses and Pride and Prejudice and To Kill a Mockingbird did not come about because we wanted or needed them but rather because one of us could write them. 

And now I’m really confused.


21 Comments leave one →
  1. June 7, 2011 12:24 am

    I could never get past the second page of any Joyce or Eliot. Perhaps this is why my professors suggested I investigate other areas of writing. Like working in a pencil factory or a paper mill . Now Chaucer and Homer and Shakespeare I loved. Became a history/religion major when dropped English. Then I got to do John Calvin which takes a week per page to absorb.

    • June 11, 2011 9:31 pm

      I totally understand the folks who aren’t into Joyce. As a mature student I was fortunate enough to have a fantastic teacher leading a great class and he was able to explain what was going on and why and it wasn’t so daunting. Trust me, I’d never take Joyce on vacation!

      • June 12, 2011 12:26 am

        Thank you for some vindication. My college professors thought I was quite the barbarian.

  2. June 7, 2011 12:57 am

    Wow Mr Former Agent of Global Capitalism, that’s gonna be some event! Sadly, I don’t Tweet and have never read Joyce. I could go for the ‘pub-crawl’ though. That would offer many iotas of instant pleasure for me.
    I’m kinda in the “destroy all machines” camp when it comes to new technology and it’s impact on culture. But I do enjoy communicating with other Americans hiding out in the southern hemisphere. So’ I guess all machines except the computer, Word Press, and P2P file sharing programs, should be destroyed 🙂

  3. June 7, 2011 2:35 am

    Your blog post gave me an iota of pleasure. So I’m considering reblogging and retweeting it all day, breaking it down to its smaller increments to test each one individually. I trust crowdsourcing and I’m sure the hivemind will be fair when I subject your blog post to this test.

    I’m going to start right now with your first word:


  4. June 7, 2011 6:33 am

    I blame our TV commercials on the decay of the human mind where a person can only concentrate on one iota of instant pleasure.

    As for me I’d like more than one iota of instant pleasure. I want more!

    The project sounds very interesting much like the novel writing project that happens each year.

  5. June 7, 2011 1:29 pm

    I’m also in the camp that can’t warm to Joyce — I’m not sure it’s the cocaine-rap plethora of his language or just the odor of boiled pork and damp washing that seems to permeate everything he wrote about. But I’m amused and impressed by the Tweeting project, because it at least requires sufficient Joyce literacy to distil the pages. What the hell; maybe some people will learn to enjoy the book because of this.

    Now maybe someone will Tweet War and Peace, or Gibbon’s Decline And Fall?

    • June 11, 2011 9:36 pm

      War and Peace would be a challenge because I think a lot of the characters names are more than 140 characters!

  6. June 8, 2011 7:33 am

    I’ve never gotten into Joyce either, but believe that rewriting classic literature is fundamentally wrong…


  7. jacquelincangro permalink
    June 8, 2011 12:46 pm

    I’m a purist, too. The author’s words should remain as is. But if I play devil’s advocate for a moment…maybe tweeting Joyce is not much different than a director creating a movie from the book. They are reimagining it for a different medium.

  8. June 9, 2011 4:03 am

    An English teacher and an English major, I nevertheless have not read Ulysses. (I prefer my Ulysses to be named Odysseus and written by Homer.) As for the twitter aspect, I think that twitter will probably force some intersting interpretations and I think that if I knew the book I’d be interested. But even though the technology is new the idea is not. I recall as a child seeing a book of Tom Sawyer rendered as a series of bumper stickers. Of course, the distribution and real-time aspect of twitter is the difference.

  9. June 9, 2011 10:56 am

    I’m working on organizing a project to produce the longest papyrus scroll in history that will list every tweet ever posted in handwritten form using old fashioned ink and goose quills.

  10. June 12, 2011 1:38 pm

    “Instead of a need in search of a solution we have solutions in search of needs.” … hehe.

    About your other point, there being no “need” for literature … perhaps it wasn’t that the audience had need of it (though I actually do, even if it’s a want or need I don’t know I have prior to reading), but that the author had need of it.

  11. July 28, 2018 1:30 am

    Funny these people not getting into “Ulysses”. I took the book to the military service and read in boring hours and it helped me a lot. Then I read it again with my wife, she in Turkish, I in English, and after every bit we talked about it. Now we had a reading group in Gümüşlük and one of us was always reading aloud and we met every day for 1 1/2 hours and now after five weeks we are through. And believe me, we didn’t get everything….

    • July 28, 2018 8:49 am

      Thanks for your comment! I think that’s the way to read Ulysses–with a group so you can discuss it. Are you ready for Finnegan’s Wake?

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