First To Read: The Most Dangerous Book

I must confess that I’ve never read Ulysses. A Portrait of the Artist, definitely, though the memory of that book is long gone, and I should probably re-read it now that I’m well out of the overwhelming haze of college years. But I do love books about books! They are the best possible combination of research, history ands storytelling. The Most Dangerous Book, by Kevin Birmingham, has this combination down pat.  There are so many fascinating story lines in this book– Joyce’s writing process, the history of censorship in America and Europe, the rise of the radical left, Joyce’s physical ailments, the story of Sylvia Beach, the contents of Ulysses itself. It is very easy for a book about a book to be dry and boring, just straight reporting but this book goes beyond research to tell a story. Of course, the danger for the reader is remembering the storyteller, having not been present, will take some creative license, and is, after all, telling a story. It’s like ethnography, but without the credibility. You just have to trust that the writer is staying close to the spirit of the true story, based on primary and secondary documents. When the story is well-told, it is easy to believe the writer was there, and is sharing a first-hand account of the events that unfolded. Kevin Birmingham has convinced this reader! I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and thought it was very well-paced, despite the enormous amount of information and detail Birmingham has given his readers. Never have I understood so clearly the context within which a book exists– sometimes a book is never just a book, and the history of Ulysses is a history of the death of the Victorian age and the birth of a radical awakening, both in America and Europe.

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