James Joyce Teaches Master Class on Seizing Opportunities

CJ Blair, Columnist

Few transitions are stranger than starting summer break after a year of college.

Admittedly, I thought going to Oberlin would grant me a lifetime exemption from boredom and access to any internship I wanted. But being an Obie doesn’t change the fact that many workplaces don’t accept first-years, leaving a lot of younger students at home for their first summer of college. With three months at hand, summer provides a glimpse into how a year of college has changed students and how successfully they may balance practical and enjoyable aspects of their lives once they graduate.

One of my most ambitious summer projects was reading Ulysses, the great and terrible mega-novel by James Joyce. Since reading a book was among my most impressive feats, it should be obvious that I didn’t have anything majorly exciting lined up for the break. Yet as I read Ulysses, I realized that it was actually representative of everything I was doing with my summer.

In addition to that book, I read almost a dozen others, learned to cook, worked as a veterinary technician and ran 60 miles a week. The sum of all those activities is exactly what you would guess: a hodgepodge. There was no crowning achievement I could present at the end of the summer, just a handful of experiences, some dull and some wonderful. This is, to a tee, exactly how I would summarize my experience reading.

Ulysses is an 800-page riff on the Odyssey that takes place in early 20th-century Dublin, featuring an eclectic series of adventures written in dozens of styles. About half of its 18 chapters were unbearable, scholarly nonsense that were nearly impossible to finish. However, the other half were profound and hilarious like nothing else I’ve read, and I enjoyed it despite likely missing the majority of the references. As I neared the end of the book, I began to realize how this impression of Ulysses was applicable to my feelings about the summer.


First off, I was trying to find some sort of meaning in the way I spent my summer and in Ulysses, both of which I now know are impossible. When faced with inevitable boredom and loneliness, I start to feel like a blade that needs to be sharpened and I scramble to do things I know will be considered productive. I imagine a lot of people are also like this, especially students stripped of the social and intellectual excitement of college. But then I thought about the things I truly enjoyed about my summer and had an epiphany.

The things I enjoyed most were the ones I either didn’t expect or pursued for no reason. I wanted to get better at identifying plants, so I bought a field guide and learned the names of dozens of trees around my town. I planted 1500 golden rods and learned about a renowned Kentucky writer by working in her garden. On their own, it’s hard to say that any of these things were very productive. I wasn’t thinking about the greater good or preparing for classes I would take. They were just moments I snatched out of the air to see where they took me, with no real expectation of where that would be.

While I wouldn’t recommend trying to read Ulysses in its entirety, the book itself represents an idea I believe everyone should hear: When given the time, gladly take whatever comes your way, and realize the things that you’ll enjoy and learn the most from can’t be predicted. If asked whether I would ever do again what I did this summer, I would reply like the exalted Molly Bloom in the 40-page closing sentence of Ulysses: “yes I said yes I will yes.”