James Joyce Reading Group Offers Safety in Numbers as It Tackles Finnegans Wake

By Patty Wetli | Wednesday, February 8, 2012


James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake" is the subject of a new reading group. Credit: Flickr/UggBoy/UggGirl

Finnegans Wake, the final novel of James Joyce, has a bit of an image problem. Something about its reputation as “one of the most difficult works of fiction in the English language” tends to turn off potential readers (including this reporter, who has an English degree). So hats off to Rene Ostberg, who’s courageously attempting to form a reading group around this fearsome tome. The first meeting is Sunday, Feb. 12, 2-4 p.m., at The Grafton, 4530 N. Lincoln Ave.–worst case scenario, you can down a few pints of Guinness while cursing Joyce’s inscrutability.

Of course, Ostberg is hoping for a more positive experience. “I’m mainly doing this for fun, which I know will sound weird to a lot of people,” she says, “and to meet other people who like James Joyce, Irish literature, or just talking about books and language.”

A former copy editor for Encyclopedia Britannica who now operates Wayfaring Women Tours, Ostberg earned a B.A. in English, with a focus on Irish Studies, from Southern Illinois University, but stresses that the reading group welcomes members from all backgrounds. “I don’t intend this to be some uber-academic or serious kind of thing. If we’re going along and we come to points where we’re all throwing our hands up and admitting we haven’t a clue what Joyce is on about, that’s fine by me. That’s the safety in numbers I suppose–or maybe it’ll be insanity in numbers.”

All anyone needs to join the group is a copy of the novel. No prior knowledge of the text is required, which is just one way the group differs from a book discussion club. Ostberg envisions members agreeing at the beginning of each meeting on the number of pages (or paragraphs) to attempt during the session. “We’ll take turns reading the few paragraphs or pages out loud, and then we’ll get to talking about it, a little bit at a time. Next meeting we just pick up where we left off.”

I remember the last time I read a work aloud as part of a group: 9th grade English with Mr. Livingston, and the process was excruciating. Yet Ostberg believes Finnegans is ideally suited to the oral treatment.

“I think a lot of Joyce’s wordplay and puns in the book don’t become as apparent until you hear them, rather than just see them or read them to yourself,” she says. “I also think it’s especially good to draw from other people’s ideas, reading taste, knowledge, etcetera, for this book. For any book, really. I only know so much. There’s a lot of references I could miss or not get. But I’m thinking that in reading it with others, even just a couple other people, we can help fill in each other’s gaps of understanding.”

Ostberg’s interest in Finnegans Wake stems less from an obsession with Joyce than her affection for all things Irish (her heritage on her mother’s side), though she has conquered Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. “I’m really not so much a Joyce fanatic as an Irish culture fanatic, and that’s really what drew me to Joyce’s writing,” she says. “I’ll read almost any Irish author or any book on Irish history.” Having lived and worked in Ireland for several years during the 1990s, the Chicago native returns frequently to the Emerald Isle to visit friends.

The Grafton, named after a famous street in Joyce’s home turf of Dublin, struck Ostberg as the perfect setting for her reading group. Though she currently lives in Mt. Prospect, Ostberg was a resident of Lincoln Square from 2002 to 2004, and again from 2005 to 2008, both times right around the corner from the Irish pub.

“I wanted a place that’s cozy and comfortable and has an intimate and literary feel to it–a place to talk,” she says. “The owner has been really nice about trying to accommodate the reading group. There are a lot of Irish pubs in Chicago, but I find a lot of them too big or too loud, too over-decorated or something. The Grafton actually has a pretty authentic feel to it.”

Good thing Ostberg feels at home at The Grafton, because if the Finnegans group takes off, she could be spending a lot of time there for the next decade or two. “If I get a good response, then we will read that book to the bitter end,” she says. “Which means we will read it for infinity, since the book ends in mid-sentence and then starts at the beginning all over again.”

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  • Jorn Barger

    We had a weekly Chicago FW Study Group in the late 1980s.

  • Anonymous

    Look forward to this event!

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