The Home Place: Coming home - Colum McCann
The Irish Hospice Foundation asked some well-known people to contribute to its new book, ‘The Gathering: Reflections on Ireland’. This is Colum McCann’s contribution: ‘I did what anyone with a fondness for James Joyce would: I licked my thumb, picked up the crumb of Ulysses and ate it’
Brendan Bourke: photographer, film-maker, writer, teacher and best friend
There is a priceless copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses in the New York Public Library. A first edition. Signed by Joyce to his friend James Stephens.
The collision of book and place is sacred. The library is probably the finest in the world. So too, of course, is the book: the most acclaimed novel of the 20th century. So when I had a chance to see the copy in the winter of 2011, I immediately said yes. I got on the subway. Got off at 42nd Street. Walked along Fifth Avenue in the slush. Shook out my umbrella. Walked up the steps, past the famous lion statues, into the library. Up to the third floor. Into a rare-book room where the curators greeted me warmly.
The book was laid out on a piece of blue velvet, opened carefully and methodically. The curators wore gloves. They treated the book with proper awe. I was supervised every moment of the way. I didn’t even get to touch the pages. I leaned over the book, breathed the phrases in. The ineluctable modality of the visible.
Part of the charm of books, of course, is that they disintegrate. Although the language lasts forever – in both a digital and imaginative sense – no book can be protected forever. There are simple laws of nature. Even if we sealed our books in hermetic tombs, some distant day entropy will gnaw at the pages. It’s called age – it’s the most democratic thing in the world and it happens to the best of us, even Joyce.
So when the book was carefully closed and lifted to be put away, a tiny flake of page fell from inside on to the blue cloth beneath. This happens. That’s life. Books will flake. It was just a crumb, really. Slightly smaller than a thumbtack. It sat on the blue felt cloth. The library staff didn’t notice it. They took the book away. To be wrapped, protected, properly humidified. But the flake still lay there on the cloth. I stared at it. It would soon become dust.
I got ready to leave. Unhooked my jacket from the back of the chair. Thought about it again. Looked down at the flake of Ulysses.
And then I did what anyone with a fondness for Joyce would: I licked my thumb, picked up the crumb and ate it. Or rather let it dissolve slowly.
The book that I return to, when I return to Ireland, is always Ulysses. I make no apology for this. I don’t find it pretentious. I don’t think it’s overwrought. Nor do I believe that it’s an impossible read. Sure, it is difficult, but all worthy things are, in their own way, difficult.
It’s just a good book. I like it. It makes me laugh. It puzzles me. It confounds me. It frustrates me. It thrills me. I find it worth reading. That’s enough.
And literature lives on in the most peculiar ways. The messy layers of human experience get ordered and reordered by what we take into our minds, our memories, our imaginations. Books can carry us to the furthest side of our desires. We can travel, we can remain or we can hide in plain sight. And sometimes they mean so much more than just the physical or even the imaginative object.