Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Review: THE MOST DANGEROUS BOOK, by Kevin Birmingham

The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses, by Kevin Birmingham. Published 2015 by Penguin. Nonfiction.

Reading The Most Dangerous Book is probably the closest I'll ever get to reading Ulysses, and that's fine with me.

I've never really been interested in reading Ulysses or Joyce generally, although I have read some shorter works in college. The people I know who've read it seemed to have done it as a kind of dare or means of showing off; I can't think of anyone who's read it just for enjoyment. Maybe I'm wrong? Maybe one of you has? But to me novels are to be enjoyed first and foremost, not studied or pondered over or carried around like an adult-sized merit badge. So.

That said, I'd heard good things about The Most Dangerous Book and it appealed to me because I'm interested in the history of censorship. As it turns out it's a pretty great read.

Because the story of Ulysses isn't just about the story of its publication; that's only the middle of this story.  First it had to be written, and that means Joyce needed the time, space and support to write it, not to mention the prospect of publication. The Most Dangerous Book is about 1/3 Joyce biography, 1/3 social history of early 20th century bohemian culture and 1/3 censorship law and the growth of the First Amendment into what we understand it as being today. These elements combine to tell the story of how one book was published, distributed and sold, and what all that meant to literature, law and society.

So there's a lot to learn and Kevin Birmingham tells the story in prose that's passionate, articulate and gripping; it reads like a thriller sometimes, like an invective at others, and sometimes just entertaining social history. At the beginning of the book, talking about late 19th and early 20th century bohemians and their relationship with the establishment his prose has a kind of prissiness about it; he describes Anthony Comstock and other censors as tight laced villains and Joyce's early publishers as brave and daring ladies-about-town. At other times employs dry wit to describe how a conservative judge came to be one of the architects of modern First Amendment jurisprudence. The changes in tone keep the reader engaged and listening; this could be boring stuff in the hands of a less skilled writer. Throughout he engages in a robust defense of freedom for artists and readers alike.

But it's the characterizations of Joyce and his circle that kept the book interesting to me. Ezra Pound, Sylvia Beach and Ernest Hemingway all had crucial roles to play, as well as the magazine publishers, booksellers, publishers, printers and smugglers who worked to get the book written, printed, distributed and brought into the United States. Because before Joyce could publish Ulysses he had to write it, and he was writing it almost till the last minute. We learn about the foes, which included judges, inspectors, and even the post office. It's an amazing drama above all, and Birmingham's prose will have you pinned to the pages. At times it almost seems like Joyce's own role was less significant than that of the varied and diverse team of booklovers who worked tirelessly to see his work come to light.

Along with all this drama Birmingham offers us plentiful excerpts from Ulysses and a mini course on the structure of the book, so readers can get a taste of just what was causing such a fuss. He includes personal papers of Joyce's too, letters and such, and papers from many of the other players in this drama. I learned things about Ezra Pound I never knew, and a lot about the literary scene that supported Joyce even as Joyce sometimes drove his supporters to distraction. And Birmingham tells us about the man himself, his relationship with this wife and children, his impecuniousness and his failing health and eyesight.

I highly recommend The Most Dangerous Book to readers of many stripes. History buffs, bibliophiles, Joyce fans and more will find time spent with this book to be rewarding, fascinating and fun. It's really terrific.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received a galley from the publisher.