On Playing Hooky From a Job at the Post Office to Read ‘Ulysses’

The summer after my freshman year I found myself working as a substitute mail carrier in one of the tony North Shore suburbs outside Chicago. The post office was an intriguing place (just see short stories by Eudora Welty and Herman Melville). I discovered, after a steep learning curve, that I could sort and deliver the mail on my route in less than the eight hours allotted for the job, but I made the mistake of returning to the post office early only once. I received a very colorful lecture from the chief clerk, who dragged me down to the employee lunchroom in the basement and explained how poorly my colleagues would regard me if I dared show up again before 3:15 p.m., when I was scheduled to punch out.

As a result, I hid in the only air-conditioned public building in town: the library. With an hour or two to spare each afternoon, I decided to improve myself by reading the Greatest Novel Ever Written. During my six weeks with Ulysses, I had a number of observations. First, I swooned over many of the most gorgeous sentences I’d ever encountered. Second, unlike other works by Joyce that I’d adored, like Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or “The Dead” in Dubliners, Ulysses didn’t seem to be a novel in the narrow way I thought of that form, that is, as a story which would carry me along because of my emotional connection with one or more characters. I had to work at Ulysses, so much so that it seemed fitting that the taxpayers of the United States were paying me $2.52 an hour while I read it. Finally, it was startling but instructive that in an affluent community with a sky-high education level, the library’s lone copy of Ulysses was on the shelf every time I went to find it. I spent many years after that wondering whether Joyce’s book could really be the greatest novel ever written if no one else in town wanted to read it.

—Scott Turow, writing in the introduction to By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from The New York Times Book Review

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