Dublin, beyond the Blooms
The notion of a holiday built around literature is a contradiction, which makes Dublin the right destination for those inclined toward the literary life.

Travel, after all, is about going and doing. The consolations of reading are solitary; even the experience of dramatic literature is sedentary. Although serious reading — even of the purely recreational sort — is a diversion that admits no distraction, it can be made richer still when complemented by experience.

For my money — and, these days, be prepared to bring a lot of that — Dublin is the city where that experience is almost too easily obtained.

Start with the fact that this city is not simply the backdrop but a subject of the great modernist novel "Ulysses," whose author, James Joyce, intended to "give a picture of Dublin so complete" that the city "could be reconstructed out of my book." (So you could, if the Dublin you wished to rebuild was the now vanished Edwardian city that existed between dawn and midnight on June 16, 1904.)

"Ulysses" may have made Leopold and Molly Bloom's house at 7 Eccles St. one of the most famous addresses in literature, but why stop there? Dublin was home to three of Ireland's Nobel literature laureates — George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats and Samuel Beckett. The fourth, Seamus Heaney, has long made the city his base, though he lives south of town in the Wicklow Hills. Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan and Flann O'Brien didn't simply work in Dublin but inhabited it in a way that still resonates.

If you're inclined toward the Gothic, this was the home not only of Dracula's creator, Bram Stoker, but also of J. Sheridan Le Fanu, whose story "Carmilla" made a genre of vampires.

Dublin is the city of the Abbey Theatre, where Sean O'Casey found drama in the lives of the urban poor and John Millington Synge a culture in the country people's traditions and speech. Oscar Wilde was born and educated here, as was our tongue's protean satirist and social critic, Jonathan Swift, who also began the still thriving local tradition of denigrating the place when he described himself as "dropped in wretched Dublin."

Today, it is home to such internationally acclaimed novelists as John Banville, Colm Toibin and Roddy Doyle, scores of interesting poets, as well as Maeve Binchy, who virtually invented what's come to be called "chick-lit."

None of this has been lost on the Irish, who nowadays are a people with both eyes firmly fixed on the main chance. There are nightly pub crawls conducted by actors who declaim from the works of writers associated with the various establishments. The artifacts of literary tourism are sprinkled around the way statues of Our Lady of Lourdes used to be.

Joyce left Dublin for Continental exile because he found it a "city of failure, of rancor and unhappiness." For generations, respectable local opinion reciprocated with the conviction that he was a libertine, apostate and pornographer. No more. Today, airport souvenir shops peddle Joyce prints, mugs and T-shirts, and his image is a ubiquitous bronze presence from one end of the city to the other. A life-sized statue surrounded by incised quotations from his works decorates the fountain of a courtyard garden inside one of the city's best hotels.

"St. Joyce has replaced St. Patrick in the new, post-Catholic Ireland," Fintan O'Toole, the Irish Times' drama critic, told me over a recent lunch at Chapter One, one of Dublin's fashionable and excellent newer restaurants. "Literature is now strongly commoditized," explained O'Toole, who is also a columnist, a prolific author, sometime television and radio host and one of the country's leading public intellectuals.

More on the "new Ireland" — post Catholic and other things — in a moment. Suffice to say, that O'Toole, as usual, puts the matter squarely and correctly. These days, it's all too easy for well-intentioned but unwary visiting book-lovers to find themselves drifting unsatisfactorily in the shallow waters between those twin poles of contemporary tourism — kitsch and cliché.

To avoid them, I'd suggest a different sort of itinerary — idiosyncratic, but not eccentric — one that doesn't avoid every point on the beaten path but takes some new ways into them.

A vibrant and fashionable city

DON'T expect to find either Joyce's "dear, dirty Dublin" or Yeats' "blind and ignorant town."

Roman rule, the Reformation, Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution may have passed Ireland by — which accounts, in part, for the country's distinctive literary sensibility — but membership in the European Union, successive governments' adroit economic policies, a well-educated English-speaking population and a tradition of openness born of the long post-famine diaspora prepared the Irish for the Information Age and a globalized economy.

They've made the most of the opportunity, transforming a nation that a little more than a decade ago was essentially traditional and agrarian. Today, Ireland and, in particular, Dublin are booming with a growth rate that is Europe's envy.

Shrewd visitors — once they've steeled themselves to the prices of everything — will avail themselves of this new Dublin's advantages, while avoiding its ills. To that end, stay in the city center.