Saturday 16 June is Bloomsday, the annual celebration of the Irish writer James Joyce and his remarkable book Ulysses. The novel, published in 1922 and prosecuted for obscenity, tells the story of three people - Leopold Bloom, Molly Bloom and Stephen Dedalus - in a single day, 16 June 1904, around Dublin.
Amid the usual bevy of documentaries, articles and radio programs about Joyce’s Ulysses, something more unusual is taking place. liberateUlysses is a project to “creatively liberate” Ulysses. Last year, the experiment involved tweeting the novel over 24 hours on 16 June 2011. You could foresee problems tweeting a book which contains a 5,000 word sentence, but the idea was to represent sections of the book rather than reproduce it word-for-word online. The results are still around for your perusal. This year the project is encouraging people “to express their personal vision of Ulysses with whatever medium they have at hand”, be it Twitter, Google+ or - gasp - face to face.
This new type of literary rendition explores how technology can change the way we experience literature and history. Another example is Pepysdiary.com, a project to put Samuel Pepy’s dairies online which began in 2003 and ended recently. It’s a wonderful project which has built up a substantial audience over the years. The Twitter account @samuelpepys has over 30,000 followers.
Examples of this new form of Twitter time travel abound. The writer Teju Cole is tweeting stories from New York in 1912 on the same day in 2012. He gathers condensed snippets of news from the Library of Congress newspaper archive. His tweets create echoes and parallels between the past and present which would previously have gone unnoticed.
Tweets from the Second World War in real time is a similar idea, posting updates about the Second World War from today’s date 72 years ago. It’s become astoundingly popular with nearly 250,000 followers. It is at its most powerful when a long-forgotten event such as a Swiss journalist discovering “a herd of cattle mooing in a fashionable Parisian boulevard, after slaughterhouse staff fled the city” finds its way into your timeline.
Using Twitter in this way helps to tease out new temporal dimensions and parallels. It enables glimpses of the past - tiny shards of literature and history - to slip into our daily routines and enrich our lives in new ways. Indeed these uses of Twitter and other digital platforms are entirely in keeping with Joyce’s own methods, what Eliot described as “manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity”.
Many mourn the decline of the book and the rise of the ebook, growing misty eyed about loss of the sturdy physicality of a tome, but few are taking on the challenge re-imagining what a book is when it is no longer on paper. These projects are leading the way. At worst, these experiments go unnoticed in the incessant clamour for attention in the digital realm. At best they illuminate supposedly well-known, but dimly remembered events and works, expanding upon the conversations which people have being having with dead authors in the margins of books for centuries.
This article was published on the Huffington Post.