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Finnegans, Wake!

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James Joyce -- Finnegans Wake Book I Chapter 1 [audiobook]

The Innovative Spirit. Travel Taiwan. In the years since its publication, the Wake has lived something of a double life.

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On the one hand, it has been a darling of academia, lending itself to exegesis as few other novels do. As a result, it has gained a reputation as a book more written about than read, the ultimate in modernist incomprehensibility. It has almost become a badge of middlebrow honour to declare to the world that you have never, and will never, read the thing. And yet. The fact is that anything that is written can be read, if you go at it in the right way.

Finnegans Wake

It has a musical flow that flatters the ear, that has the organic structure of works of nature, that transmits painstakingly every vowel and consonant formed by his ear. Joyce himself lent some credence to this approach by recording a section from the Anna Livia Plurabelle chapter at the Orthological Institute at Cambridge in , in his best cod-Irish brogue.

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Most impressively of all, in , the Irish writer Patrick Healey recorded the whole thing; 35 hours of audio recorded over a four-day period in Bow Lane recording studios, Dublin. The great playwright Samuel Beckett and many other literary masters have viewed the work as pure genius. Finnegans Wake hangs over literary history as a perpetual and troublesome question.

Finnegans, Wake!

To gain some insight into this question I wanted to try Karpathy's RNN, train it on the text of Finnegans Wake , and see what the results looked like. RNNs are particularly well suited for learning a strange text like Finnegans Wake because they learn one character at a time, rather than whole words or "tokens". It is at least some credit to the book that the majority of Natural Language Processing techniques would be as baffled by the text as many readers. Below is a passage from the original text compared with the output of the RNN trained on the work itself:.

The results are definitely interesting, but how can this weekend hack actually provide any insight into this monumental work of literature? Very well structured, surprisingly readable, and almost magic gibberish.