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The Most Dangerous Book by Kevin Birmingham
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The Most Dangerous Book by Kevin Birmingham
Paperback $19.00
May 26, 2015 | ISBN 9780143127543

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    May 26, 2015 | ISBN 9780143127543

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Dwight Garner, The New York Times:
“Kevin Birmingham’s new book about the long censorship fight over James Joyce’s Ulysses braids eight or nine good stories into one mighty strand… The best story that’s told… may be that of the arrival of a significant young nonfiction writer. Mr. Birmingham, a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard, appears fully formed in this, his first book. The historian and the writer in him are utterly in sync. He marches through this material with authority and grace, an instinct for detail and smacking quotation and a fair amount of wit. It’s a measured yet bravura performance.”

Michael Dirda, The Washington Post:
“Birmingham has produced an excellent work of consolidation…. [A] lively history …. The Most Dangerous Book is impressively
researched and especially useful for its meticulous accounts of various legal battles. It is meant to be fun to read and, setting aside my fogeyish cavils, it is.”

The Economist:
“[G]ripping. Like the novel which it takes as its subject, it deserves to be read.”

The New Yorker:
“Terrific…. The Most Dangerous Book is the fullest account anybody has made of the publication history of Ulysses. Birmingham’s brilliant study makes you realize how important owning this book, the physical book, has always been to people.” 

Vanity Fair:
“Birmingham recounts this story with a richness of detail and dramatic verve unexpected of literary history, making one almost nostalgic for the bad old days, when a book could be still be dangerous.”

The Wall Street Journal:
“The story of Ulysses has been told before, but not with Mr. Birmingham’s thoroughness. The Most Dangerous Book makes use of newspaper reports, court documents, letters and the existing Joyce biographies. It looks back to a time ‘when novelists tested the limits of the law and when novels were dangerous enough to be burned’ and makes one almost nostalgic for it.”

Dallas Morning News:
“Hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been written about Ulysses since its publication. Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book is a splendid addition….  this book has groundbreaking new archival research, and it thrills like a courtroom drama.”

Boston Globe:
“I am not a Joycean. But I loved Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book anyway. You don’t need to be a Bloomsday devotee to enjoy or profit mightily from it. Birmingham… writes with fluidity and a surprising eye for fun. He probably has read through the mountains of books and scholarly articles on Ulysses and seems obsessed with the book itself, but wears it all lightly. [A] vivid narrative [that]…makes you want to go back and read—and treasure—Joyce’s novel because he liberally salts the novel’s backstory with memorable anecdotes and apercus, especially at the close of each chapter.”

Houston Chronicle:
“Lively and engrossing.”

“[A] deeply fun work of scholarship that rescues Ulysses from the superlatives and academic battles that shroud its fundamental unruliness and humanity.”

“Astute and gorgeously written…. [The] battle for Ulysses…is a story that, as Birmingham puts it, forced the world to ‘recognize that beauty is deeper than pleasure and that art is larger than beauty.’ He has done it justice.”

Chronicle of Higher Education:
“An essential, thoroughly researched addition to Joyceana and a consistently engaging narrative of how sexuality, aesthetics, morality, and jurisprudence collided almost a century ago.”

The Nation:
“Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses casts its nets… widely, synthesizing enormous amounts of information and describing in detail the multiple circumstances surrounding the gestation, publication and suppression of Ulysses. Birmingham is a fluid writer, and the more intricate the detail, the more compelling the narrative he constructs: his account of the rise of American obscenity laws… is as gripping to read as his account of the barbaric eye surgeries Joyce endured or his account of the nearly slapstick manner in which Samuel Roth published a pirated edition of Ulysses in 1929.”

Publishers Weekly (starred):
“Exultant….Drawing upon extensive research, Birmingham skillfully converts the dust of the archive into vivid narrative, steeping readers in the culture, law, and art of a world forced to contend with a masterpiece.”

Kirkus Reviews (starred):
“[A] sharp, well-written debut….Birmingham makes palpable the courage and commitment of the rebels who championed Joyce, but he grants the censors their points of view as well in this absorbing chronicle of a tumultuous time. Superb cultural history, pulling together many strands of literary, judicial and societal developments into a smoothly woven narrative fabric.”

Library Journal:
“What begins as simply the ‘biography of a book’ morphs into an absorbing, deeply researched, and accessible guide to the history of modern thought in the first two decades of the 20th century through the lens of Joyce’s innovative fiction.”

“Birmingham delivers for the first time a complete account of the legal war waged…to get Joyce’s masterpiece past British and American obscenity laws. Birmingham has chronicled an epoch-making triumph for literature.”


Author Q&A

How did you first become interested in James Joyce?
I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man during the summer before my first year of college, which is an auspicious time for that book. I remember liking it, though I wasn’t entirely hooked on Joyce. That probably didn’t happen until after my second reading of Ulysses.
Every first-time reader probably experiences Ulysses a little differently. What was your experience like?
Bewildering, boring, frustrating and fascinating. I felt the full spectrum of emotions a reader might have with a book. I was a freshman in college, and I remember that someone in my seminar asked if anyone could understand “Proteus,” the third episode, before the professor arrived. It was a relief to find that we were all a bit confused. I realized it was OK not to know everything. Ezra Pound was also confused. So was Virginia Woolf. If you don’t know what’s happening, you’re in good company. Give it time, though, and the novel will change for you, as if rearranging itself in your sleep.
We’re only a few years shy of Ulysses‘s centennial. What has enabled the novel to retain its relevance?

Joyce’s experimentation is as new to readers today as it was in 1922. No one has tried to duplicate it. Part of what’s exciting about Ulysses is that there’s something deeply familiar beneath that experimentation. The most remarkable thing about the novel is how ordinary everything is (though one chapter is a massive exception). Joyce was a master of estranging us from ordinary things, which is what all great art does to some degree. 
Anyone who works on the life of James Joyce has to contend with Richard Ellmann’s towering biography. How did you accommodate yourself to Ellmann’s influence and yet manage to write a book of great freshness and considerable independent value?
Even the greatest of biographies—and Ellmann’s is great—must be radically selective. Anything a biographer writes is able to tell a story and mark out a pattern only by treating vast swaths of information as dispensable, and what’s dispensable to someone else may be important to you. Think about it this way: Joyce wrote thousands of letters. A mere list of Joyce’s complete letters—without any of their content—is over 500 pages long. One could write a biography four times the size of Ellmann’s and still not cover everything. My goal, however, was to go narrower and deeper, to take a small sliver of Joyce’s life in order to draw connections and peer into the facts and details that the bird’s-eye view can’t disclose.
Although it’s evident that you admire Joyce as a writer, you don’t sugarcoat your portrayal of him as a person. In fact, readers may be surprised by all the warts you show us. In writing your book, did you ever feel tempted to treat Joyce a little more gently?
I felt tempted to treat him fairly. We have to be honest about a person’s flaws, especially when they are so closely related to their virtues. The self-regard that made Joyce a fascinating writer also made him a difficult person. And besides, Joyce is the last person who would trade honesty for politesse.
Possibly the biggest bombshell in The Most Dangerous Book is your argument that James Joyce suffered from syphilis. Would you tell us a bit about the path that led you to that conclusion?

There are only a small handful of illnesses that can account for Joyce’s recurrent symptoms (primarily, his eye infections), so at some point I began trying to figure out what was causing them, and one red flag is that Ellmann doesn’t even suggest a possible reason for Joyce’s eye problems. Why not? His array of treatments are a dimension of his medical history, and while going through all his medications while matching them to medical textbooks, pharmacopeias and national formularies, I realized that a reference to a certain injection he was getting (three weeks of arsenic and phosphorus) matched only one available drug at the time, and that drug was anti-syphilitic. Joyce’s doctor was treating him for syphilis.
Some of the most lyrical passages in your book are also those in which, in your endnotes, you admit to having engaged in speculation. What kind of principle did you employ to craft an engaging narrative without verging too far into fiction?
There are only about four passages that involve speculation, and the most substantial one is Judge Woolsey’s recollection of a rainy Thanksgiving years before the Thanksgiving during which he was deciding the Ulysses case. What’s speculative is whether Woolsey thought of the prior Thanksgiving during that 1933 Thanksgiving, though my account doesn’t actually make that leap. I write, “He often thought about a dreary Thanksgiving in New Hampshire,” which is strictly accurate. I appended the note because the placement of that fact might mislead readers to believe he thought about dreary New Hampshire on one specific day. I have a feeling that he did, though I can’t say with certainty. Which is why I don’t.
Many of the proponents of banning Ulysses claimed to be protecting the sensibilities of women. However, a number of women played indispensable roles both in the novel’s being written and its eventual coming before the public. What do you think accounts for this paradox?
I think women neither needed nor wanted the protection that the censors thought they needed.
You refer in places to the “tragic” vision of Ulysses. Just what was the essence of the tragedy that Joyce was writing?

. . . 

One of the claims that you make on behalf of Ulysses is that it helped to do away with the concept of permanent values. Okay, we’ll bite: what’s so bad about permanent values?
Nothing, so long as the world never changes.
It seems as though, to preserve a space for Ulysses, a culture also eventually has to make room for Hustler and Barely Legal. Is the payoff always worth the price?
Would you burn every copy of Ulysses if it meant you could burn every copy of Hustler? Me neither.
It’s not easy for a lecturer at a major university to find the time and energy to write a book, let alone one of the magnitude of The Most Dangerous Book. How did you do it?
Five hours a day—virtually every day—without internet access. And I mean no internet access. I don’t own a smartphone.
You worked very briefly as a bartender in one of the Dublin pubs formerly frequented by Joyce. What’s the story there?
I somehow got it into my head that I wanted to be a bartender in Dublin when I was in college, so I bought a plane ticket, searched around for jobs and finally found one at Davy Byrne’s, where Leopold Bloom eats his gorgonzola sandwich. I’m convinced the only reason why I got the job is that I asked, at the end of the interview, “Is this the same Davy Byrne’s featured in Ulysses?” My bartending skills were not, unfortunately, as robust as my reading skills, so they fired me at the end of the day. But I was a quick learner, and I found another job bartending at a place called the Shakespeare Pub on Parnell Street, and that lasted me through the summer.
A reader who hasn’t read Ulysses can get a pretty good sense of the novel by reading your book. How would you persuade such a reader to take the plunge and read Ulysses as well?
Read ten pages of Finnegans Wake. Then start reading Ulysses and indulge in its simple clarity. Beyond that, start a reading group. Plunging into Ulysses with a group of friends (or maybe just one friend) helps carry you through the dark days. When it’s over, you’ll share something important.

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