Ultimately, the real pleasure of reading Joyce’s work comes from discovering its intricacies, its minutiae, its particulars. No writer in any language has been so scrupulous in their attention to detail; not even Melville with his whole whale-hunting geek-a-thon can really compare with Joyce’s descriptions of a single June day in 1904 (Ulysses), or of a single shady encounter in Dublin’s Phoenix park as filtered through the collective gossip of the city’s denizens (Finnegans Wake), or of the Catholic church’s definition of hell (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). These details are endless, and endlessly fascinating, unfolding like a lotus flower with each rereading. It is perhaps the single greatest advantage to reading Joyce: he never disappoints the microscope.
Of course, this also happens to be the great disadvantage to reading Joyce as well; readers pretty much have to keep their microscopes handy at all times. The sheer number of details inviting scrutiny can indeed be overwhelming. They’re as numerous as grains of sand on a beach, in fact.
So you may well ask: What kind of lunatic would go to the trouble of studying a beach one grain of sand at a time? Well, before I answer that question, please understand that it’s not just a beach – it’s also an ocean, plus the beach on the other side of that ocean, and even beyond that. It may not look like much more than, say, a sandcastle at any given moment, but study the sandcastle long enough, and the ocean from whence its material came will eventually come into view, as will even the opposite shore.
But enough of the beach metaphor. My point is that Joyce can really only be understood one detail at a time. For that, my primary recommendation for beginners is to grab the annotation volumes. Avoid the “how to” books, at least when you first start out. A lot of them are really good, but no matter how introductory they may claim to be, these books are for people who have already started exploring Joyce’s world from within.
So to the question, “What kind of lunatic?” etc, my answer is simple: JoyceGeek. We are legion, and we’ve been around for well over a century now, starting with, I suppose, Joyce’s own brother Stannie. The names you see on the bylines of the annotations – Gifford, Seidman, McHugh, Slepon, Jackson, McGinley, Scholes, Litz, Anderson, Thorton, Mamogonian, Turner, Smurthwaite – my God, that list alone is already getting massive – but readers should be aware that the notes and glosses contained in their compilations are the result of the work of literally hundreds – what am I saying – thousands of JoyceGeeks spanning five continents and a near century’s worth of geekery – enough to create our own little beach, in fact.
So if you don’t mind feeling mighty small, at least at first, James Joyce’s world awaits – it’s very much worth the effort.