William York Tindall:  
A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake

This is still the best short guide to Finnegans
.  Tindall taught at Columbia University for
40 years, and he began lecturing on Joyce back
in the 1920s when
Ulysses was still banned in the
United States.  For many years he taught a seminar
course on
Finnegans Wake at Columbia, and, as
this guide makes clear, he both instructed and
learned from his students.  This book, one of
Tindall’s last publications, draws on the fruits of
this lifetime of engagement with Joyce’s work. Like
Campbell, Tindall will walk you chapter-by-chapter
through the book—and do so with a clarity, honesty
and good humor that other scholars might do well to
emulate.  He will make clear the distinction between
what he knows about the book, and what he merely
suspects.   If he encounters a passage that mystifies
him, he will admit it.   He praises Joyce when praise
is warranted, and isn’t afraid to criticize the author
when he Joyce falls short of Tindall’s standards. His
accounts of each chapter are not synopses, such
as Campbell offers, but are astute commentaries,
filled with facts, hints, ideas and conjectures. Of all
the Joyceans, he is the one who comes closest to
matching Joyce pun for pun, joke for joke, and in a
field that is littered with dense, foreboding academic
jargon, Tindall achieved the almost impossible: writing
a sprightly, readable guide to the most difficult work
in the English language.  

John Bishop:
Joyce’s Book of the Dark

When I was at Stanford, I heard about a graduate
student who allegedly knew Joyce’s work better
than any of the professors.  I never met him or
went to the classes where he demonstrated his
arcane knowledge of
Finnegans Wake, but word-
of-mouth accounts of his expertise spread through
campus intellectual circles, and caught the attention
of people who cared about such matters. When
I picked up this book years later and saw all the
names of Stanford professors in the acknowledge-
ments, the lightbulb went on.  This must have been
that dude.  And, truly, John Bishop has probed into
the inner workings of
Finnegans Wake as deeply
as anyone not named James Joyce.  His study,
Joyce's Book of the Dark, will not take you gently
through each chapter of
Finnegans Wake, as do
Campbell and Tindall, but it is unsurpassed at
grasping the larger themes and significations of
the text. I do have my reservations about this book
—it is filled with some of the most cumbersome
sentences I've ever read (in true Joycean fashion),
and the repetitions sometimes seem like padding.
It is too partisan, both in its advocacy of Bishop's
agenda and its unwillingness to admit any criticisms
of Joyce's work.  But the astuteness of the author
and the brilliance of his synthesis make this an
essential book for those grappling with

Richard Ellmann:  
James Joyce

Reading a writer's biography is typically an
optional exercise for the casual student.  But Joyce
put so much of his own life into his novels—and
in ways that are so puzzling to outsiders who don't
know the real-life details behind the fiction—that
readers of his work really should consult a first-rate
biography. Fortunately for us, Richard Ellmann has
written one of the best literary biographies of
modern times, and his 900-page work
Joyce (first published in 1959 and revised in 1982)
remains unsurpassed more than a half-century
after its initial release.  (For those who want to
know why I prefer Ellmann's book to more recent
Joyce biographies, including Gordon Bowker's
2012 volume, check out my essay
"The Many Lives
of James Joyce.")   You will understand many
aspects of
Finnegans Wake far better if you first
make your acquaintance with Joyce via Ellmann's
in-depth study. Joyce's complex relationships with
his father, mother, wife, daughter, and brother
Stanislaus undergird the family dynamics of
Finnegans Wake. These and many of the recurring
plot fragments of the novel (such as the encounter
of Buckley and the Russian general or Joyce’s many
literary—and other—rivalries) are addressed
superbly in Ellmann’s bio.  

Joseph Campbell:
A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake

Published just five years after Joyce released
Finnegans Wake to a befuddled public, Joseph
Cambpell's 'skeleton key' served as the entry point
that allowed the first generation of readers to come
to grips with this daunting novel. True, Campbell's
interpretation has been superseded by later
scholars, who differ with some of his views, and
have supplemented others.  Yet this remains a
useful guide to Joyce’s book, especially as it still is
one of the few places to go to get a page-by-
page synopsis that will guide you through the
entirety of
Finnegans Wake.  I found some insights
in Campbell’s exegesis that were missing in later
commentaries, and even some of his "outdated"
interpretations are thought-provoking and will spur
you to consider different aspects of Joyce’s novel.  
Also, the last chapter in Campbell’s book is one of
the best brief assessments of
Finnegans Wake
you might even want (in true Joycean fashion, if you
will allow me repeat myself) to start with that chapter
before turning to the start of the book.

Giambattista Vico:  
The New Science

Joyce often told people that, if they wanted to
Finnegans Wake, they should read
The New Science.  I second that suggestion,
and you will find a familiarity with Vico will be
especially helpful if you also read
The New Science
in conjunction with the section on Vico in John
Joyce’s Book of the Dark (see above).  
But I would also recommend
The New Science simply
for the joy of reading one of the most visionary works
of sociology / anthropology / philosophy every
published.  I only wish someone would come up
with a fully annotated version of
The New Science,
akin to the annotated guides to Joyce.  In a pinch,
you can consult
Isaiah Berlin’s writings on Vico, but
at that point you will have moved beyond Joycean
studies and into the fascinating world of Viconian

Roland McHugh:  
Annotations to Finnegans Wake

I thought I would use this book more than I actually
did.  When I read
Ulysses, I benefitted enormously
Don Gifford and Robert Seidman's 700 pages
of annotations, and wanted something comparable
Finnegans Wake.  But McHugh’s tiny font
reference is more compressed and far less user-
friendly as the
fweet.org website.  That latter
resource—also known as the Finnegans Wake
Extensible Elucidation Treasury (FWEET)—is now
the starting point for close analysis of puzzling
passages in Joyce’s novel.  Also check out the
Finnegans Wake wiki on the web. (You can find
other relevant web links at the
James Joyce in
Cyberspace website.)

The Egyptian Book of the Dead:
(The Paypyrus of Ani)

I recommend this book (papyrus?) with some
trepidation.  Any list of the most boring books
I have read in my lifetime will find
The Egyptian
Book of the Dead somewhere in the top five.  
But the plot of this apparently plotless ancient
book is—as Joyce himself understood and planned
—the blueprint for the plot of the apparently
plotless novel
Finnegans Wake.  Once again,
consult Bishop’s excellent treatment of
Egyptian Book of the Dead in Joyce’s Book
of the Dark (see above) for insights into the
connections between the two works.  And may
you come forth by day with your wrappings still
in good working order.  

Thornton Wilder:  
By the Skin of Our Teeth

This last recommendation is the least essential,
but for the sheer fun of it, you ought to read
Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1942
The Skin of our Teeth.  Joseph Campbell
accused Wilder of stealing his story from
Finnegans Wake—perhaps an unfair accusation
(and especially puzzling coming from Campbell,
who made a significant borrowing from Joyce for
his own bestselling
The Hero with a Thousand
Faces).  I consider this play more a hidden tribute
and reimagining of Joyce’s book.  And I can't
imagine any serious reader of
Finnegans Wake
who doesn’t take some delight in seeing how Wilder
can capture the essence of this difficult novel and
turn it into a fast-paced and funny stage comedy.   
a website devoted to radical,
unconventional and experimental
fiction with a particular focus on the
rise of modernism and its aftermath.
The Finnegans Wake Toolkit

by Ted Gioia
Here are your survival tools for Finnegans Wake.  For your benefit,
I've prioritized these, with the essential items at the top, and the optional
items lower down on the list.  Students of this work also need to know
about several invaluable websites—I’d call particular attention to the
Finnegans Wake Extensible Elucidation Treasury and the Finnegans-
Wiki.  Also see my essay "The Adventurer’s Guide to Finnegans Wake."
See Also:
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