6:46 A.M. Sit on the couch with Toby, our dog, to read Ulysses. I’ve been doing this in hour-long sessions, a few mornings each week, since spring. Today I begin chapter 9, otherwise known as “Scylla and Charybdis.” This is the one where Stephen Dedalus gives a disquisition on Shakespeare in the reading room of Dublin’s National Library. (Meanwhile, Leopold Bloom, the novel’s main character, is in the National Museum nearby, checking out the bottoms of the classical statues to see if they have anuses.) I am, as a friend calls it, “geeking out” on Ulysses. My method is: read each chapter once through with Ulysses Annotated, Don Gifford’s exhaustive book of explanatory notes, at my elbow; read the corresponding sections in a couple of critical texts that discuss the book chapter by chapter; go back and read the chapter a second time, neat. But that’s not the end of the geekery! Before I begin each new section, I take a look at Ian Gunn and Clive Hart’s incredibly fun James Joyce’s Dublin, which maps the routes Bloom and Dedalus walk over the course of their shared June 16th and reprints archival photos of the Irish capital in the early twentieth century. For “Scylla and Charybdis,” there’s a great picture of the interior of the National Library, with men wearing many-layered, tightly buttoned suits, sitting at long wooden tables similar to the ones in the New York Public Library’s Rose Reading Room. No one’s playing Minesweeper on his laptop, though; these Dubliners are reading books—books, imagine!—propped on very civilized-looking reading stands.
This chapter is pretty note-heavy. Over the next hour, I get through only sixty lines of text, but according to the annotations, these lines contain allusions to Hamlet, Goethe, Milton, Blake, Yeats, Matthew Arnold, Marie Corelli, A.E., an obscure play by Synge, and Irish political history. I also learn two new Shakespearean words: coranto, “a running dance,” and sinkapace, “a dance with five steps.” I should say that I’m technically rereading Ulysses, but my memory of the book from the first time around, in college, twenty-three years ago, is almost nil. I’m sure I stumbled over every other sentence then. Not this time!
7:51 A.M. Toby and I hear Caleb waking up in the bedroom; Toby slides off the couch, corantoes off.
7:54 A.M. Joyce’s allusion to the phrase “strangers in the house,” an Irish epithet for British invaders, causes the Elvis Costello song “There’s a Stranger in the House” to briefly play in my head.
8:03 A.M. Breakfast. Caleb and I are slowly reading through The Oxford Book of English Verse, aloud, poem by poem. The idea is to start the day with beauty and art, while bad news waits on the doorstep, temporarily contained in a blue plastic bag. But sometimes, against our better judgment, we find the temptation to read the newspaper overwhelming. Today we decide to do both—the paper while we eat cereal, a poem after. I read “Political Cauldron Stirred by Old Video of Candidate,” about Christine O’Donnell’s dabbling in witchcraft, and immediately regret our decision.
8:25 A.M. Caleb reads Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, then I read it. It’s beautiful. The message is, Caleb says, “You love me more because I’m olden.” We figure out that Shakespeare probably wrote it when he was in his late thirties—dismaying that he thought himself in his twilight then. I’ve read a lot of the plays but very few of the sonnets. I know this one, though, because Kate Jacobs, a Hoboken singer-songwriter I like, has adapted it and set it to music. Her version, “That Time of Year,” is enchanting—it’s done klezmer-style, with a horn, fiddle, and banjo.
9:02 A.M. Iron my clothes for work. I figure out that I can memorize Sonnet 73 in a week if I learn just two lines a day.
That time of yeeare thou maist in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few doe hang
I’ve been obsessed with the idea of memorization since reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, an account of the British travel writer’s walk across Europe in the 1930s. Leigh Fermor passed the time by reciting the anthology’s worth of English poetry he had committed to memory as a schoolboy. Rote learning was not a priority of suburban public schools in the 1980s—we memorized the first paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities in ninth grade, and that was it—and since reading Leigh Fermor’s book I’ve fantasized about making up for it in middle age, though without much success.
10:10 A.M. At work, read my Facebook news feed. My friend Sean Howe has changed his profile picture to the rooster on the cover of Pavement’s Watery, Domestic EP. Sean texted me Saturday evening to say he had an extra ticket for Pavement at the Williamsburg Waterfront, the first of five New York dates on its reunion tour—did I want to go? I immediately said yes, and then realized I didn’t want to after all, and sheepishly called him back Sunday morning to say I had changed my mind. A reason for my ambivalence occurred to me later: that seeing Pavement, a band I loved in the 1990s, might make me feel temporally displaced—as though, for one night only, I would revisit a musically exciting time in my life, and then the window would close up again, for good. The prospect of such a heady rush of nostalgia made me uneasy.
10:44 A.M. Sean e-mails a link to a review of the Pavement concert with the set list appended to the bottom. Maybe I was wrong—looking at this list, I think I would have been happy to hear these songs again.
12:32 P.M. Take advantage of my new MoMA membership by meeting my friend Kate Bolick for lunch at the trattoria-ish cafeteria on the second floor. Afterward we quickly walk through a small show about modern kitchen design. Some great poster art, including British wartime propaganda with a rat that “will eat your rations,” and TV monitors with kitchen-related vintage films. It’s too much to take in over a few minutes—I’ll have to come back.
6:18 P.M. On subway platform, begin new Alan Bennett story “The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson,” in the London Review of Books.
6:50 P.M. Train pulls into the station near my house. It’s touch-and-go with this story; not sure I’ll end up finishing it.
7:45 P.M. Leaf through new issue of New York magazine while waiting for frittata to set on stovetop; wish that there were more photos of Andrew Garfield in Facebook movie article. I have a haircut scheduled for later in the week—could I pull off his flawlessly styled quiff?
9:31 P.M. Read draft of “Melville’s Secrets,” a lecture Caleb will deliver later in the week at Geneseo State College. He’s been asked to give the annual Harding Lecture, named after the late Walter Harding, a preeminent Thoreau scholar who taught at the school. The lecture is about “secret meaning” in Melville, specifically in Moby-Dick and Clarel, Melville’s little-read epic poem. Why do certain books, Caleb asks, make us feel that the author possesses esoteric knowledge he or she has encoded within the text? What might that hidden knowledge mean in Melville’s case? I haven’t read Moby-Dick in a long time, but I’m fully absorbed by Caleb’s paper; for one, there’s a lot of sperm in it. Read More