Tweeting 'Ulysses': Fans Put A Twist On Bloomsday

Originally published on June 16, 2011 3:14 pm

Today is Bloomsday, the annual celebration of James Joyce's novel Ulysses. The book details an epic day in the life of Leopold Bloom, in the 24-hour span of June 16, 1904.

For decades, Joyce-lovers have been commemorating Bloomsday by eating kidney for breakfast and drinking pints of Guinness, as Bloom does. They also hold marathon readings of the novel.

This year, the commemorations will also include Twitter, where a group of Ulysses enthusiasts has broken the nearly 800-page novel down into bite-sized pieces — each 140 characters long. They'll send the tweets out in what's being called a Bloomsday Burst.

Stephen Cole organized the Ulysses Meets Twitter project by breaking the book into 96 sections, one for each 15 minutes of the day. Then he recruited volunteers to condense the book into tweets, each one representing about eight pages of the book.

As Cole tells Morning Edition co-host Renee Montagne, he considers the Bloomsday Burst an experiment.

"What I chose to do was [to] try to get in the words and phrases that you liked," he says, "but also put in enough of the narrative link so you can get a sense of where he is, and where he's going."

With Joyce's expansive text, that can be a challenge; Cole says some volunteer tweeters decided to focus strictly on the original words, tossing out the narrative altogether.

And if the tweetformance of Ulysses doesn't always make sense, Cole says that's okay.

"Joyce did not have a lot in that book, [of] pointers to let readers know what is going on," he says. "You had to go with the stream of consciousness a lot. And in a sense, Twitter is like that. It's broken down into little bits, and it's hard to pull them together. But that's the way large parts of Ulysses were written."

Cole admits that if he were alive today, Joyce might not like the idea that his book was being broken up into tweets.

"I think he really, really really liked what he put in Ulysses, on the page," Cole says. "And an adaptation of that, which is what we're doing — he probably couldn't see any reason to do. Because it was perfect on the page as he did it."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Today is Bloomsday, the annual celebration of James Joyce's novel�"Ulysses." The story takes place over a single day - Thursday, June 16th, 1904.

INSKEEP: For decades, Joyce lovers have been commemorating the 16th of June by eating kidneys for breakfast and drinking pints of Guinness, just like Leopold Bloom, the protagonist in "Ulysses."

MONTAGNE: This year, there's another way to celebrate the modernist classic. A group of "Ulysses" enthusiasts are sending out a version of this massive stream of consciousness novel as a stream of tweets. The Twitter feed began this morning. We recorded a sample of the tweets earlier.

Unidentified Woman: Her heart gives way to the hard softness of love when she reminiscences about the day Bloom proposed and she said yes I said I will Yes.

Unidentified Man: Guns boom and troops deploy and hooves gallop and whores screech and the earth trembles and dragon's teeth rain down and black candles rise.

MONTAGNE: Those were two of the many tweets over this Bloomsday.

Steve Cole is the man who the organized this entire project and he joined us to talk about it.

Welcome.

Mr. STEVE COLE: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Obviously, you could not fit the more than 265,000 words in 24 hours of tweeting. So what exactly is being tweeted?

Mr. COLE: Well, what I did was set up this - and really it's an experiment - to do the entire novel, at least starting at the beginning and going to the end. So the challenge was to break it down into essentially quarter-hour chunks. That's 96 over the 24 hours. And I asked people to put together a series of tweets - four to six tweets - to represent about eight pages.

MONTAGNE: Eight pages approximating a novel that is about 800 pages?

Mr. COLE: Right. But we'll see. I really didn't have an expectation specifically of I hope it comes out this way or that way. I've billed this as an experiment. Volunteer people who I don't even know, some steeped in Joyce as their careers.

I think there's even one person who was the translator for one edition of "Ulysses" in Brazil. Down to people like me who are just Joyce fans.

MONTAGNE: Let me ask this, did you give tips to your tweeters, about how to keep the flavor of the novel while condensing passages down into 140 characters?

Mr. COLE: No, not tips. But I did draft a few myself.

MONTAGNE: Give us an example of one of your examples.

Mr. COLE: All right. Well, I'll read one set of mine. "On the doorstep he felt in his hip pocket for the latchkey. Not there. He crossed to the bright side. His eyelids sank quietly often as he walked in happy warmth. From the cellar grating floated up the flabby gush of porter. A cloud began to cover the sun wholly slowly wholly. To smell the gentle smoke of tea, fume of the pan, sizzling butter. Be near her ample bedwarmed flesh."

Basically what's going on there is a scene where Leopold Bloom, early in the book, is preparing breakfast for Molly, his wife. But what I chose to do was try to get in the words and phrases you liked, but also put in enough of the narrative link so you can get a sense of where he is and where he's going.

But in that confine, you can't really do justice to either. So some people threw out, completely, the narrative thread of who is even speaking, as Joyce did. I mean, Joyce did not have a lot in that book, pointers to help the reader know what's going on. You had to go with the stream of consciousness a lot.

And in a sense, Twitter is like that. It's broken down into little bits and it's hard to pull them together. But that's the way large parts of "Ulysses" was written.

MONTAGNE: And it is stream of consciousness, Twitter.

Mr. COLE: Mm-hmm, yeah.

MONTAGNE: Quite a bit of it is. I mean, it's not, most of the time, anywhere near as artful at James Joyce. But the...

Mr. COLE: No, not at all. Yeah. But the...

MONTAGNE: Sadly.

Mr. COLE: Yeah. Well, no...

MONTAGNE: Wouldn't that be nice if...

Mr. COLE: Well - Well, and the thing I wanted to get away from a little bit, is that, you know, everybody on Twitter will put into one tweet their favorite quote from whomever. But I wanted people to kind of go beyond that. Don't give me just your classic memorable phrase, but to try to convey something of what's going on in the text.

MONTAGNE: And of course, Joyce was a great experimenter.

Mr. COLE: Yes.

MONTAGNE: Famously so. "Ulysses," ground-breaking work full of puns and allusions and parodies. Do you think Joyce would have liked the idea of fracturing his narrative into these tiny Twitter-friendly splinters?

Mr. COLE: Well, I don't think he'd mind fractured presentation, because that's what he put in his own book. Whether he would want his work fractured and recast as it was in Twitter, I'm not sure he would look kindly on that because I think he really, really, really liked what he put in "Ulysses" on the page. And an adaptation of that, which is what we're doing, he probably couldn't see any reason to do, because it was perfect on the page as he did it.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. COLE: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: Happy Bloomsday.

Mr. COLE: Oh, thank you.

MONTAGNE: That's Steve Cole. He organized "Ulysses" meets Twitter 2011. He'll be following the 24 hours of tweet, though he is hoping to step away from his computer tonight for a pint of Guinness at the James Joyce Irish pub in Baltimore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.