Spotlight: Reading with relish the inner organs

BY LAURA WILLIS | APRIL 05, 2011 7:20 AM

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At the age of 19, Jason Burke first became lost and mystified by the invented language and literary dream sequences of James Joyce’s classic novel Finnegan’s Wake.

The book, which took the Irish author and poet 17 years to write, begins with only part of a sentence, aiding in its reputation as one of the most challenging books in English to read.

“The way [Joyce] puts in all of these puzzles and illusions and obstacles makes you have to look things up and take a scholarly approach,” the now 34-year-old said. “That hasn’t come naturally to me before, but he forces you to do that.”

After completing graduate school at the Emperor’s College of Traditional Oriental Medicine in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2002, Burke moved to a variety of places to work as an acupuncturist.

Throughout the process of moving he lost numerous books, including several editions of Joyce’s Ulysses. In September 2010, he was offered a position at Acupuncture of Iowa, and moved to Iowa City.

Boxes of novels remained scattered about his new home, except for a new copy of Ulysses that Burke had recently received from a friend.

“I had this new copy on my nightstand, taunting me,” he said.

To gain support for books he had been reading for 15 years, Burke started a James Joyce Book Club. He created a website for the group in January, not expecting anyone to sign up. To his surprise, nine members joined, and with a different number of people attend each Tuesday night meeting at Dublin Underground, 5 S. Dubuque St.

The first book on the club’s list is Ulysses. Members aim to read 80 pages a week, with a goal of finishing the novel within the next month.

“I think that a weekly Joyce group would be especially worthwhile for participants,” said UI Adjunct Assistant Professor Heidi Carrier. “The careful attention and collaborative effort of an ongoing group would certainly aid its members in encountering the many challenges and reaping the enormous awards in Joyce’s work.”

The hourlong meetings are kept casual and spent drinking a pint or two and swapping interpretations of the text back and forth. Recent topics have included Ulysses’s main character Leopold Bloom.

Burke, who had never been a part of book club before, depended on others to direct the tone of conversation. Together the group traced classical Greek and Latin words, searching for clues Joyce left behind.

Despite taking an unfamiliar role as a literary leader, members feel that Burke has kept persistent discussions.

“[Burke] is a great club leader because he is never out of questions,” said club member Anthony Donofrio. “He has a very sharp mind, which is perfect for reading literature of this type.”

Burke acknowledges that Joyce’s style of writing isn’t for everyone. Whether it be two people that show up to the book club meeting or all nine, what matters most is reaching the ultimate goal: piecing together each of Joyce’s narratives.

“This to me is a personal challenge,” Burke said. “Some people want to climb Mount Everest — this is the benchmark for me.”

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