Outside Edge: In the first of a new series about those working off the beaten track, the labour of David J Wilson and his finger-breaking passion for James Joyce

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The Independent Culture
David J Wilson, freelance computer programmer and part-time book dealer, lives in a remote cottage in Northumberland - 40 miles, to be precise, from the nearest traffic light. He likes it there because Northumberland reminds him of the Sixties (he describes himself as 'a Sixties survivor; not quite a hippy'), and because he needs the quiet. 'Writing computer programs is like building a big house of cards in your head,' he says. 'The slightest distraction can bring it tumbling down.' To protect himself further, he lives by Chicago time. Ring at midday and his mother, who doesn't, will tell you he's out. In fact, he'll be in bed, sleeping off a hard night on the terminal.

Recently, silence has become an even more urgent matter. It started five years ago, when Wilson, who uses 'a stone-age Amstrad', first wrote a computer program to analyse texts: 'It does all sorts of exotic things,' he says, some time in the late afternoon. 'It picks out word frequencies, puts all the words into alphabetical order, tells you how many sentences there are, how many words of different lengths . . . Ask me a question you'd have to have a bloody good reason for asking without the program, and I can give you the answer in 10 minutes. It has more features than Liverpool's home crowd.'

Initially, he tested the program out on 'Mary Had a Little Lamb', but the experiment soon palled and, scanning his bookshelves for something more substantial, he tugged out a copy of Ulysses. 'I started with the first chapter,' he says, 'which has 7,200 words.' These 7,200 words took about a fortnight to input - Wilson types with two fingers - but the man was sold. 'There is no severer test of the quality of prose,' he says, 'than copying a bit out. Nobody passes this test like Joyce. No matter how long you look at a sentence, any sentence, it just gets better. It's like slamming the door of a Rolls-Royce.'

Five years later, David Wilson (he was always a Joyce devotee and came second in 1976's Mastermind with Guess Who as his specialist subject), has tapped his way through the whole of Ulysses. He's also tapped his way through the whole of Dubliners, Stephen Hero, Exile, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, all available fragments and 'the most frightening book ever written', Finnegan's Wake. Result: the complete works of Joyce available on computer disc, input by hand - by two fingers of two hands to be exact. And Wilson is nothing if not exact.

Transcribing the books, for example, was no simple secretarial matter. 'Actually bashing out the words was only the start of it,' he admits. 'Accuracy, important if it's to have any benefit to scholarship, was the hard part.' Once he'd finished a chapter, he'd proof-read it carefully; then - 'and this is where my little program came in' - run it through a system that picked out 'singletons', words that only appear once. 'The principle for that was that if I'd made the same mistake twice and hadn't picked it up, I was never going to. But if you read the singletons as a list then any literals would leap out.'

This was reasonably straightforward for Ulysses, which is only 35 per cent single-use words, but for Finnegan's Wake, in which the majority of the words appear once and once only, it was . . . well, difficult. 'I ended up proofing it line by line,' he says, 'I started off only doing 500 words a day, but I speeded up - I think I even did a record 2,400 in one session.' Halfway through Finnegan's Wake - too tortuous for even artificial intelligence - he realised the task was actually fairly pointless. 'But by that time,' he says, 'it had just sort of taken over. Anyway, I didn't like to give up.'

Wilson completed Ulysses in four months, Finnegan's Wake in five, and the completed package is now available to anyone willing to cough up postage and packaging. Wilson - who compares himself to 'one of those people who write the Lord's Prayer on the edge of a pin' - was never in it for profit: 'If I charged people a price that reflected in any degree the value of the time I spent doing it, it would be a fortune.'

Rather, he went in it for love ('It was a constant joy - sometimes I'd have to stop and laugh or admire what I'd just typed out'); for posterity ('who knows my name might one day be mentioned in a footnote'), for the tugs of feeling the task afforded ('when I got to the end of the 17th chapter in Ulysses, where there's a big farewell to Bloom, I felt this unexpected surge of emotion'). And, most importantly, for the insights it provided. He talks enthusiastically about Joyce's use of 'portmanteau' words, the sense of 'cognitive catastrophe', his theory of 'fractals'. 'I thought I knew Joyce as well as you could before but, I can tell you, I know it a great deal better now.

'And one thing's for sure. At least I can say, with my hand on my heart, 'I have read Finnegan's Wake'. It puts me amongst a small elite coterie. And if you take into account the proof-reading, I've read it at least twice or three times. How many people can say that?'

For details, write to David J Wilson, Ivy Cottage, Chathill, Northumberland, NE67 5DE