Friday, July 03, 2009

Summer Reading-Infinite Jest

So I’ve set out on a summer reading journey, tackling David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, all 981 pages, an additional 388 endnotes, which tacks on 96 more pages. Not the kind of reading assignment one tackles frivolously. Staying power is required.

Infinite Jest is a “claustrophobic” read, commented one person at Infinite Summer, the focal point of a community read highlighting Wallace’s most famous, and talked about work. Maybe “famous” is the wrong way to describe Wallace and his work.

Unlike the books that get passed off for today’s best selling novels—books that are a cinch to read on your lunch break, the subway, standing in line at the supermarket, or between innings during commercial breaks, watching Red Sox games; Infinite Jest requires heavy lifting—mentally, physically, and metaphorically. Strong arms and a healthy back are also helpful, with this chock-a-block of a novel.

Infinite Summer provides readers, who might be tempted to veer aside, and toss the book down with a loud “thud,” a guide and the company of fellow travelers in reading, which for me, has willed me forward, and actually found me ahead of schedule. Woe to those who got a late start, or haven’t been as religious in their daily reading. Falling behind adds additional pressure to an already tough read, and might be the primary reason many pull up short. Infinite Jest, as presented via Indian Summer, is not a reading plan for procrastinators.

One of the reasons I’m ahead of the reading schedule (as of this morning, I’m at page 227) is illustrated by one of my evenings after work, last week.

Tuesday night, Mary was out for her monthly book club meeting (their group had tackled Khalid Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns), and I had hours of time after work to do what I wanted, as well as an empty house, filled with quiet.

Rather than frittering the time away with the empty calories of sitcoms in rerun, or even pissing away an hour online, with the all-too-often lauded social media tools of Facebook, or Twitter, I arrived home, cracked open a Diet Pepsi (in lieu of a couple of frost-brewed Coors Lights), and set about knocking out some pages over the next hour, or two. Maybe if the sun had been out and it wasn’t raining once again (June has visited rain upon us, 21 out of 30 calendar days), I’d have decided to jump on my bike for an invigorating ride to leech the work day’s stress from my system. The occasional downpours and soaked pavement made my decision to sit under artificial lighting an easier one (that and the stories of how so many have abandoned IJ further on than I’m currently sitting at).

Now that I’m ten days into my assignment, I’m viewing it less as a chore and recognizing now that reading IJ is a subversive act. Understand that for me that’s a real motivator.

When DFW committed suicide last year, no one outside of my wife and son knew anything about him, or his writing. My few failed attempts to explain his significance to co-workers just drew empty looks.

Back in the mid-90s, during my indie rock heyday, I hosted a couple of Saturday night music shows on Bowdoin College’s radio station, WBOR. I was one of a handful of community members that knew enough about college radio, and the CMJ-type formats most programmed at the time, to land a slot, not once, not twice, but for three semesters (and it would have gone longer, if I had decided to continue).

I always gave my shows some kind of “outsider” moniker, like “Swimming Upstream,” or “Against the Grain,” which allowed me to use Bad Religion’s title track from their 1989 album as one of my show’s intro music each week. Subversive college rock radio, I suppose.

During that time, I thought my actions ran counter to the mainstream. I hated much that passed for popular culture, particularly mainstream rock music. I went to great pains to strike a pose running contrary to it.

Looking back a decade, I’m not so sure I was as rad, or counter-cultural as I once fancied myself to be. My musical tastes did run to the fringes of indie rockdom, however.

Given that IJ is my book of choice for the next six to eight weeks (possibly less, given my current reading pace), I’m fueling my page turning forward by thinking of it as an act with seditious tendencies. Accomplishing completion is something that disconnects me from the mainstream of popular culture and its technological mores of watching bad television, mindless trolling of the interwebs, and the current trendy magnetism of social media.

Call the reading “claustrophobic,” difficult, or even impossible to do (as so many are moaning about on the various Infinite Summer blogs) if you want; bail on it after 200 pages if you dare. I’m choosing, however, to move forward as part of a greater reading community of people struggling by various degrees to do something unique in our time—read and think.

I’ve been asking myself (and ruminating on other reader’s comments) the past ten days, why is this book causing us all so much consternation, and even stress? What makes poring through a difficult tome run so counter to our everyday experiences in the 21st century?

I think that most of us, even those that still regularly read books, have been co-opted by our digital world of blog posts, where 300 to 400 word posts are deemed too “wordy.” Even worse, now our written communication must conform to a tool that tries to box us into 140 characters. In that context, David Foster Wallace, and Infinite Jest might just be too goddamn difficult, or “claustrophobic.”

As a writer, I appreciate DFW’s legacy with words. I admit that IJ isn’t an easy read and that his usage has been taxing the two dictionaries I have utilized regularly—both my Pocket Oxford English Dictionary, and the other, more unwieldy New Lexicon Webster’s Dicitonary of the English Language, with its 170,000 definitions and entries (30,000 more than the POED)—neither are sufficient tools for IJ. What current writer strings mixes nouns like “phonemes” and “fricatives,” and an adjective such as “trochaically?”

While it’s convenient for some to accuse Wallace of leaning towards pedantry, crafting prose fat with unfamiliar words to most of the rest of us mere mortals, on the contrary, I think Wallace’s appreciation for words and language is one of the endearing characteristics that I’ve pulled from my reading to date.

Even better, reading Wallace makes me want to write better, and pushes me harder at my own craft.

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