In all his years of leading literature courses on the Island, retired professor Philip Weinstein has never taught James Joyce’s Ulysses—and for good reason.

“Joyce is quoted as saying, when he was asked about what he wanted, he said that his ideal reader would be suffering from an ideal case of insomnia,” said Mr. Weinstein.

As it happens, the pandemic has brought just that case of insomnia.

“Covid-19 gives us a Joyce fall,” Mr. Weinstein said with a smile. “People can’t go anywhere. This is the time.”

Mr. Weinstein is the Alexander Griswold Cummins Professor of English Emeritus at Swarthmore College and long-time Joyce scholar. He is also a familiar face each fall, teaching literature courses through the Vineyard Haven Library. This year he will be doing double virtual duty through two Island libraries.

For seven online sessions beginning Sept. 9, he will lead a company of readers into the dense terrain of Ulysses through the West Tisbury Library. Organized by Jeff Nason, the course will run every other Wednesday. On alternate Wednesdays, Mr. Weinstein will guide readers through four novels by Toni Morrison in a course sponsored by the Vineyard Haven Library.

As in past years, the courses will be free of charge and open to the Island public, but thanks to the online format Mr. Weinstein has also invited Swarthmore students to participate in the Ulysses course. So far, about 200 students have expressed interest.

“I think it’s on a lot of people’s plate as what they wish they’ve read, but won’t,” said Mr. Weinstein. “I’m trying to catch those people.”

Beyond the new opportunities afforded by Zoom, Mr. Weinstein stressed the value of engaging with Joyce’s work in a year as unusual and as eventful as this one.

“[The book] is not about any central thing, but one thing it’s about again and again and again is liberation,” said Mr. Weinstein. “Given this moment of black liberation…I think that will resonate with the books need to get free.”

The novel, loosely based around the Homeric epic, the Odyssey, follows the life of Leopold Bloom for one single day in Dublin, June 16, 1904. The book is characterized by its experimental style, like its use of stream of consciousness and its unorthodox construction of time, making it notoriously difficult to parse, said Mr. Weinstein.

“This is not about what you think Ulysses means. It’s about what it does. Think of it as a verb, not a noun,” he said.

But the book’s impenetrable style is also what has afforded it such a lofty position in the literary canon, said Mr. Weinstein, who heralded the novel as “the great book of the 20th century.”

The Zoom classes will be segmented into two sections — a 45-minute lecture followed by a 30-minute question and answer period. The mixed format will ensure that readers can engage individually with the text while also gleaning important information about the novel’s themes and patterns, Mr. Weinstein said.

In preparation for the course, Mr. Weinstein strongly encourages students to read Joyce’s first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as an entry point for his later work. During the course, readers will also study a book of notes on Ulysses, penned by Joyce scholar John Bishop.

Mr. Weinstein, who taught the novel many times while at Swarthmore, is sure that the density of the material will scare some students off.

“They will quit in droves…There’s a lot of buy-in with this book, it doesn’t just happen,” he cautioned.

But a world of joy awaits those who push through, he promised.

“Part of the reward is seeing that people get that this is a funny book However much trouble it is, and however learned it is, it doesn’t forget that it walks on the ground.”

His course on Toni Morrison begins Sept. 16., and includes the novels, The Bluest Eye, Sula, The Song of Solomon and Beloved.

“I think it’s a good time for people to swim into her best work and decide for themselves what they think,” he said, in light of the author’s death last summer.

With the September start dates fast approaching, Mr. Weinstein is looking forward to bringing these two worlds of literature to Island readers.

“I want the power of these two writers, very different kinds of power to come alive inside of readers’ minds. We read to have an experience that we haven’t had yet and an encounter that makes us more than we were,” he said. “They both take you places that you haven’t been to and they do it by words.”

To register for the Ulysses course, email Jeff Nason at Registration remains open until Sept. 1. Course materials and further readings are available through Swarthmore College at with the password “Ulysses”.

To register for the Toni Morrison course, visit the Vineyard Haven Library website or contact Amy Ryan at for more information.