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Ask a random person (outside of Dublin) if they have read James Joyce’s masterpiece, and you’ll rarely get an affirmative reply. Ask an Evanstonian however, and chances are the answer will be an enthusiastic “Yes!”  A stunning 54 people recently completed “Ulysses” as part of the Evanston Public Library’s yearlong program, Mission Impossible: Ulysses. 

In the spring of 2010, Evanston librarians Lesley Williams and Karen Hansen commiserated over their inability to conquer this literary Everest, and wondered if social support might not be the key. They planned an informal series of “Ulysses” support group meetings, expecting they would get about 30 participants. When 118 people showed up to the June 16, 2010, inaugural meeting, they realized that  many others shared the same sentiment. They quickly made arrangements to offer six small discussion groups led by library staff and a volunteer from the community. Thus Mission Impossible: Ulysses was born.

Since that momentous “Bloomsday” the Library has sponsored bimonthly gatherings for the six groups, which met at the Main Library, North Branch, and the Celtic Knot Pub. Mission Impossible also included supplemental programs to enhance the reading experience.  Local Joyce expert Professor Christine Froula of Northwestern University lectured the entire group twice. Artist Leonid Osseny of Skokie exhibited and discussed his “36 Views of Ulysses.”

One of the key elements of the program’s success has been its social aspect.  For many participants and group leaders Mission Impossible was more a support group than a traditional book discussion.  Groups dubbed themselves with nicknames like “Baby Bloomers” and “Daedalus Heads” (after the book’s protagonists, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus). Ms. Hansen compares reading “Ulysses” to running a marathon: “To finish, you need a group of people to keep you going, cheer you on and hold you accountable until the finish. After all, who wants to run a marathon alone?”

Comments from participants attest to the power of the group experience, crediting “the buddy system” in getting them through this dense, complicated novel.

“I was not a literature major and am not a great reader of “good” or “classic” fiction,” wrote one member, “so I used this program as a chance to broaden my horizons. I staggered to the end and would never have even started without my group.”

May 26 marked the end of the discussion groups and the end of the novel.  About half of the original group of participants finished and can proudly count
themselves among “The Few. The Proud. The Persistent.” Despite tearful hugs at those final meetings,  there was also excitement about the prospect of tackling a new “impossible” novel together in the fall. During the June 16 “Bloomsday” celebration, one year after the initial meeting, the Library will announce the next Mission Impossible selection with kickoff scheduled for this August. And a new class of Evanstonians will take on the challenge of the impossible together.

– Lesley Williams, Head of Adult Services, Evanston Public Library