What is the best way to read James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake?
December 15, 2017 4:16 AM   Subscribe

What is the best way to read James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake?

I would like to take the plunge and do it, but I am wondering if anyone has tips for doing so effectively. The book, of course, is odd. Many of the words are made up, but they evoke meanings. It is also a continuous loop of writing that begins with the end of a sentence on page one, and the beginning of that sentence is the last thing printed in the book. The book has an intimidating reputation, but is considered to be a masterpiece. Any thoughts would be most welcome!
posted by mortaddams to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I've heard reading aloud, but set aside several hours if you're obsessed with finishing a sentence at a single sitting. ;-)
posted by sammyo at 4:41 AM on December 15, 2017

Start by noticing there's no apostrophe in the title, which is important. Then read it with a guide, such as A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake.
posted by ubiquity at 5:12 AM on December 15, 2017 [5 favorites]

If you read it aloud make sure you do it with an Irish accent (or listen to an audiobook). A lot of the wordplay/rhymes are more obvious if pronounced the way Mr Joyce's lilt would affect them.
posted by saucysault at 6:05 AM on December 15, 2017

Depends on the person. Reading it aloud helps a lot of people (and definitely listen to the available clips of Joyce reading sections). Myself, I find it better to pick it up when I'm in the mood and read sections here and there without trying to read the whole thing in order (which can be discouraging). I also enjoy using the various scholarly companions that explicate each line to a fare-thee-well, but I am a scholarly sort of reader; I imagine a lot of people would be put off by that sort of thing. Try various approaches and go with what works for you.
posted by languagehat at 7:08 AM on December 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm a moderate Joyce fan in that I've read almost everything he published once, Ulysses twice in full, and Finnegans Wake not really at all.

For me, the best way to engage with it is partially, haphazardly and over several years through the Twitter account. It's great for me because it forces an extremely close, but non linear, reading of the text. When I find a bit I really like I dig into the surrounding tweets on the timeline, read a bit out loud, get a feel for it, and I'm satisfied.

Maybe one day I'll sit down and read it proper, but until then... this gives me all the Wake I feel I really need.
posted by Ted Maul at 7:25 AM on December 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

Seconding a combination of the Twitter account -- which exposes some of the multi-layered wordplay and catches your eye unexpectedly -- and some kind of audio.
posted by holgate at 7:30 AM on December 15, 2017

I wrote my thesis on Ulysses (a million years ago) in college, and my Joycian scholar professor at the time told us that he hadn't even read Finnegans Wake cover to cover. He thought it wasn't really meant to be read like that and would dive into different parts. Given what I know about how I read Ulysses and came to understand and enjoy it, I would heed the advice of others here and get a good scholarly text to accompany you on the reading. I've also heard that listening to it is a better way to appreciate it. So maybe taking it in chunks, reading up on a part, then listening to it while scanning the text. That way you won't feel like it's really getting away from you and you can digest it in a reasonable way. I would normally not read up on something before reading the text, but in this case it might help prepare you for what will otherwise sound/look like a bunch of lyrical nonsense. Like, it's only sort of agreed upon that the book has distinguishable characters and a plot, so just be prepared.
posted by LKWorking at 8:02 AM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

IMO it isn't as odd as its reputation - I mean, it's obviously odd, but literature and all other forms of text have moved on since he wrote it, and we are more used to layered texts and experiments with language and dialect, not least because of Joyce's and others' experiments. Today we even have pop lyrics that change between different languages and slang and pure nonsense without problems. For me, the really difficult part was getting past the first few pages and into the feeling of the text, so I needed to have the time and space to focus long enough, rather than reading bits and pieces. So I think an audio book is a great idea, to get you going. Here's Joyce himself reading: James Joyce reading from the "Anna Livia Plurabelle" section from Finnegan's Wake
Wether to use a companion or not is a deeply personal thing, I think. For me a companion disturbs the rhythm and flow too much during a first read of any book, but is a wonderful guide for a second round.
posted by mumimor at 8:27 AM on December 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

"Effectively?" For what purpose? Just open it up and let the language wash over you. I really enjoyed it but I did not stress about getting anything out of it.
posted by karbonokapi at 9:52 AM on December 15, 2017

I received this advice about Ulysses, but it most likely would apply to Finnegan's Wake as well - forgive yourself if you can't get through it, even after several tries. In my 20s I went to the James Joyce Center in Dublin, and was poking around a bit when the manager stopped to chat with me. He asked if I was a student or researcher, or just a fan. "Just a fan," I said, "though, I haven't gotten through Ulysses yet."

"Well, it's a bit of a dense book, and very few people can read it all in one go the first time. That's okay."

"yeah, but...." I admitted with a blush, "....I've tried four times now and still haven't finished."

He cracked up. "Ah, darlin', it took me twelve tries!"

I later learned that he was one of Joyce's nephews. So if James Joyce's own family can't get through his stuff all in one go, the rest of us should forgive ourselves for not doing it either.

Read what you can, put it down when you get brain overload and come back to it later.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:17 AM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

I did not have success with the book nor the audio book (which I even tried to listen to while falling asleep, hypnogogic style) but I've always wanted to join a reading club that does a chapter a month.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:24 PM on December 15, 2017

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