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Review Book Club: take time to rejoice in Joyce

13 April, 2020 — By Toby Brothers

Toby Brothers, founder and director of the London Literary Salon

I HAVE spent my professional life encouraging, guiding, pushing readers to take on the Big Books by writers – Joyce, Proust, Woolf, Morrison, Ellison, Faulkner, Mann, Homer, Shakespeare, Melville, Eliot, James, Dante, Robinson – whose vision has illuminated the dark chasms of human history. Their words can touch us in these uncertain days.

But why do the work these beefy texts demand? There is a sense that reading significant works of literature is a kind of self-improvement – but I don’t think that promise alone will hold you through the labour required. Here are some reflections from my own experience and that of hundreds that I have guided through these extraordinary books.

First of all, part of the challenge of this moment is to find a mindset that will be steady and plastic enough to weather the terrifying uncertainty we face. Reading a great work of literature offers a workout for the brain and a break from the onslaught of news and fear. It will train your mind to hold details, to make connections, to see patterns and to compose an overall view of the work, leaving you refreshed and fortified.

Secondly, our sense of isolation is with us even in the best of times. As James Baldwin wrote: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

There will be a moment – even on a mid-19th century whaling boat in the middle of the ocean – of feeling your own pain accompanied by the characters or the writer. It is comforting and broadening to know you are not alone in this hard place.

Then more important now than ever is to get some perspective on our situation and along with that empathy for what others are experiencing. It is easy to feel that we are in a time of unprece­den­ted crisis, grappling with the very salvation of our planet and the threat to the survival of many people globally.

The statue of James Joyce in Dublin

Does it help to know that others before us have felt this despair? Dante’s infernal vision arose from his spiritual sickness at the political and ecclesiastical corruption infecting his beloved Florence, his revered Church. He climbed out of the layers of Hell, punishing those who had rent the fabric of his world – and creating a beatific vision from the depths of despair.

From Homer through Joyce into Ellison and Morrison, we find analysis of the xenophobia – the fear of the stranger articulated as racism, anti-semitism, anti-immigrant, homophobia – that has reduced our common humanity. To read is to enter into the experience of another and recognise yourself.

A few final suggestions. Read with a wide-awake mind. Many of us have developed a habit of reading before falling asleep – not the most attentive state of mind. Choose a time each day and give yourself an hour. Stay with the book for at least a week, some works take 50 to 100 pages to warm up and the book will teach you to read it as you enter its particular realm or way of seeing the world.

Don’t worry about what you don’t understand, focus instead on what you do. Enjoy the humour, the beauty of the writing, these are the gems that will keep you going. Many of these books do not offer traditional narrative form.

Instead, the writer presents a different paradigm of meaning. Let go of what happens and why – notice what surprises you, what ideas are fresh, what unique insights are offered. All of these books are available in audio format; listening and reading will amplify your understanding. Get some friends to read with you.

Meet up virtually to discuss the book, read passages aloud together and share your discoveries. And read. And re-read. Each dip will open the world.

Books I recommend include…

Ulysses by James Joyce. Yes, it is daunting and difficult and it is totally worth it. Joyce uses language to re-map the space between what we feel and what we can express. You will want some support – Harold Blamires’ The Bloomsday Book is a great companion. Reading Ulysses – slowly, relishing it – reveals what is possible in language.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville. About much more than whale-hunting; this raucous, multi-faceted adventure story is also a profound meditation on the human need to know – and through our knowledge, to exert power over our circumstances. And the ultimate impossibility of that control. Humorous, homo-erotic, feminist, abolitionist – lots to discover under the surface.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. This is one of the greatest works of American literature. The unnamed protagonist’s search for identity in a world that will not see him gives readers an opportunity to understand the psychological devastation of racism in its subtle as well as violent forms and to consider how each of us participates in the fate of all humanity. Ellison weaves in themes and images from Virgil, Dante, Emerson, and TS Eliot while also using the structure and transcendence of jazz to create a haunting work that stirs to the core.

• Toby Brothers is the founder and director of the London Literary Salon. The Salon offer carefully facilitated virtual studies of great works of literature including Ulysses, Invisible Man and many others. Further information at

• Which three books would you recommend and why? Email Please mark the subject line “Review book club”.


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