Voices: If you’re a literature nerd like me, today is the most important day of the year

Today mark’s the 120th anniversary of Bloomsday – the day on which Irish author James Joyce’s famously difficult novel Ulysses is set (Getty/iStock)
Today mark’s the 120th anniversary of Bloomsday – the day on which Irish author James Joyce’s famously difficult novel Ulysses is set (Getty/iStock)

If you’re a big-time book nerd like me, 16 June is basically Christmas.

Only instead of exchanging gifts and getting together with family, adherents to the festivities celebrate by loudly proclaiming that we have read a very difficult novel – and then, depending on how many friends we still have left after that part, we get really, really drunk.

If you’re the type of person who has better things to do than read 900 pages of dense Irish prose, you may be surprised to learn that this year marks the 120th anniversary of Bloomsday – the day on which Irish author James Joyce’s famously difficult novel Ulysses is set.

The book follows a single day in the life of book protagonists Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, as they traverse the city of Dublin and grapple with… well, not much, actually. It is mostly just 18 chapters of people walking around and thinking about stuff. A couple of people have orgasms, but it’s not as fun as it sounds.

The power of the novel comes from its groundbreakingly experimental prose, which is dense with clever wordplay and allusions to Irish culture and history. So dense, in fact, that many people consider it to be the most difficult novel ever written – a reputation that is hard to argue with once you actually get started. Did I mention I’ve read it? A few times, actually. Happy Bloomsday to me.

Of course, the only real way to celebrate Bloomsday is in Dublin, where every year people gather in groups to retrace the protagonists’ steps around the city, eating what they ate, drinking what they drank. There is a lot of drinking. There is a famous quote in Ulysses where Bloom says that it would be a good trick to traverse the breadth of Dublin without passing a pub, and in that tradition the festivities often include stopping at a fair few of them.

At an early Bloomsday celebration, which took place in 1954 and included such Irish literary luminaries as Flann O’Brien and Patrick Kavanagh, the esteemed gathering started drinking at 8:00 and were absolutely plastered by Paddy Dignam’s funeral. There’s even some footage of the event on YouTube, just in case you were under any illusions about the sanctity of the Celtic literary tradition.

I’ve tried to do a proper Dublin Bloomsday every year since I was 18, but haven’t quite managed it yet. I got close one year – I was living in Northern Ireland at the time, and had planned to head down for my 30th birthday. Unfortunately for me, I turned 30 in 2020, and by the time 16 June rolled around there were slightly more pressing concerns than showing off to people about a book I’d read.

I’ve written before about how much the book means to me – I forced myself to read it when I was a teenager, and credit it for helping me transition from D-student to PhD student. But more than that, the festival represents something we could all use more of.

In a world that seems more and more to be rejecting anything with a whiff of intellectualism about it, it’s heartening that more than 100 years on from the date of its publication, people are still gathering together to celebrate a book that many regard as “pretentious”. The existence of the festival, and the diverse mix of people who come together to celebrate it, proves that, when approached in the right way, even the most intimidating of books can be anything but.

Literature is, despite appearances, a communal artform. It isn’t supposed to be exclusionary, even if some people very much would like it to be. We should have events like this year-round. We should be coming out in force to celebrate art whenever we can – even if that celebration involves getting so drunk we throw up on Flann O’Brien’s shoes.

If you get a chance, do celebrate Bloomsday. You don’t have to read Ulysses. You don’t even have to read Joyce. You don’t really even have to read.

But do yourself a favour, and engage with a piece of art – a painting, a film, a tv show – something that inspires you so much you could see people still being inspired by it a century later. And then, when you’re done doing that, treat yourself to a glass of burgundy and a cheese sandwich.

That last part is a reference to Ulysses. Did I mention I’ve read it?