I started reading David Foster Wallace’s epic Infinite Jest at the cottage. I set myself an (overly) ambitious target of 100 pages a day. Ambitious because it took me an hour to read 15 pages. And I could only reasonably avoid my family and read on the dock for seven hours of the day. Because reading Infinite Jest is an exercise in focus, absorption and dedication. Like the ‘entertainment’ that so bewitches characters that they cannot look away (choosing death by starvation or dehydration rather than stopping the consumption of the entertainment) the novel asks for (demands?) complete attention if the reader is to make sense of the overlapping plot lines, constantly shifting points of view, temporal and geographic locations, narrative styles and relationships among characters.
More than one family member asked me what it was ‘about.’ I tried to say something about tennis, the near-future, commercialization of time, drug addiction and recovery, Quebec separatism. Hardly comes across as a coherent plot. I tried, too, to explain that it was about writing – the possibilities of what words can accomplish, the absurdity of genre – and again, not enough of a hook. I finally reduced it to ‘it’s about a family that runs a tennis academy and also about the folks at a drug rehab facility neighbouring the tennis academy BUT MOSTLY ITS ABOUT EVERYTHING.’
I now think it’s about the experience of reading Infinite Jest. Talk to others who have read it – or tried to read it, or started reading it and gave up (I, too, hit the ‘wall’ around 50 pages – I’d been reading for four hours and I had no idea who the characters were, what the plot was, what genre I was in, where I was in time or space – it was utterly bewildering and completely frustrating. I decided to give up. But then I couldn’t live with the shame of admitting here that I’d given up. So I continued. Around 150 pages it starts to make sense. And I was tempted to go back and read the beginning again to see what I’d missed, but such temptation is how the ‘entertainment’ kills us all. Around 200 it started to seem like a genius accomplishment of beauty and bravery and I never looked back) and you’ll find that more than talking about the substance of the novel, people want to talk about their experience reading it. They want to talk about the strategy of sawing the book into thirds in order to make its weight manageable. Or about how many times they gave up and started again and gave up before finishing the book. About their support groups of readers. Their self imposed deadlines (or page goals). Not dissimilar from the subculture of marathon runners, there’s a sort of knowing nod to someone making their way through the pages – that this is a reader with the necessary grit to understand that everything worthwhile comes at a cost. In this case the cost is time. Infinite Jest needs patient reading. It needs careful, slow reading in uninterrupted blocks of time. It is not a book you can – or want – to put down after reading for 15 minutes. It is not a book you can read while also half listening to the radio or eavesdropping on your mum and sister while they discuss breastfeeding. Reading this book in a moment in time that encourages you to always be doing five different things, to pay attention only long enough to decide whether the thing is a thing you don’t want to miss out on or to take a picture of yourself while doing it – reading this book slowly and with the rush of pleasure as you consume the rich and unimaginable… it is so worth it. You’ll be a hero to yourself for doing it. And a hero to your life because you’ve decided that more than watching another episode of Grey’s Anatomy, what you really ought to be doing is witnessing genius.
Be a hero. Run a marathon. And if you have weak knees – read Infinite Jest. And if you have weak wrists – get an e-reader.