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How exactly are books rated for ‘greatness’? If it is fiction, it must tell a good story, and say it well. Ulysses, despite its iconoclasm, does neither, writes Lalit Mohan.

india Updated: Jul 05, 2007 00:29 IST

A newsmagazine recently asked some authors to list books they find unreadable. One of them named James Joyce’s Ulysses, the 783-page ‘classic’. I, too, have tried thrice to plough through it but never managed to get past page 36.

How exactly are books rated for ‘greatness’? If it is fiction, it must tell a good story, and say it well. Ulysses, despite its iconoclasm, does neither.

In the Modern Library edition that I have, what was of greater interest was a New York court’s judgment on it. The book had been banned in the United States on grounds of obscenity. The court lifted the ban and the case is considered a legal landmark.

Judge John M Woolsey, in his order of December 6, 1933, says: “Although it contains many words considered dirty, I have not found anything that I consider dirty for dirt’s sake. Each word of the book contributes like a mosaic to the detail of the picture.”

He, however, admits: “Ulysses is not an easy book to read or understand.” The book has a 45-page-long passage, which doesn’t have a single punctuation mark or a paragraph break. And it has no ‘story’ to speak of.

The best way to tell a story remains what the King of Hearts said in Alice in Wonderland: “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end.”

Therefore even if a few highbrow individuals proclaim a book a ‘masterpiece’, it does not necessarily make it so.