Seldom does a work of literary history or criticism deserve the epithet "virtually un-put-downable"; this one does. Birmingham's treatise on the composition, publication, and afterlife of Joyce's Ulysses is simply masterly.
It is important for a modern reader to understand just how controversial Ulysses was in its day. Birmingham writes: "Nearly a century later, the reactions to Ulysses can feel overblown. . . . These days, Ulysses may seem more eccentric than epoch changing, and it can be difficult to see how Joyce's novel (how any novel, perhaps) could have been revolutionary. This is because all revolutions look tame from the other side." But in its day Ulysses was both controversial and widely seen as pornographic.
The cast of characters here reads like a roster of the greatest English-language authors of the early twentieth-century. I, for one, had no idea that Ezra Pound has played such a cardinal role in Joyce's life and works. And the full story of how the unlikely storefront of Shakespeare and Company came to publish this work, only to see many of its copies swept up and burned by wacko censors and customs agents, reads like an espionage thriller.
It has been many years since I reread Ulysses, even longer since I trekked through Ellman's magisterial biography. Maybe much of what is here the Joyce scholar knows already. But this humble reader did not. I learned much. And I thoroughly enjoyed doing so.