Saturday, June 1, 2013

Embarking on a Summer of Jest

The last time I read and blogged a mighty tome, it was the late summer of Ulysses in 2011. It was a satisfying experience, more so just to finally finish it, and this summer, starting today, I am finally going to read Infinite Jest

I am not going to go it alone.  Summer of Jest was started by one ambitious reader, a similar project to Infinite Summer of 2009, and it quickly spread.  Now it is a presence in a blog, in Twitter, in Facebook, and Goodreads.  I've talked a few people into joining me, so we'll see how long they stick around.  If you stumble across this blog post, you may join us too!

I thought I'd start out by discussing my previous experience with David Foster Wallace.  I had him on my to-read list before he died in September of 2008, prompted by a friend whose opinion on books I value very highly, but his passing prompted me to get started. 

My first book of his was Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, which I read in October of 2008. The most memorable essay from this volume is the title essay.  It exposes that lobsters actually do feel pain, and die excruciating deaths when they are going to be eaten.  I have spent the last twelve years fluctuating between veganism, vegetarianism, and eating fish, but I'm not sure I've actually consumed lobster since reading that essay.  He is a powerful non-fiction writer, who isn't afraid to include his own experience as part of the narrative.

A month later in November 2008, I read A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, which I posted a review of in Goodreads.  The title essay was about cruises, and I'd had enough cruising experience to know exactly where he was coming from.  At the time, I felt it was strange to have a self-confessed agoraphobe writing about experiences that most people get enjoyment out of because of the people in the situation, and his discomfort allows for a severe critique of many of these circumstances.  At the same time, there is humor mixed in with the sardonic treatment of state fairs and media, which makes for an enjoyable experience.  The cover picture is also pretty memorable.

Another month later in December 2008, I read The Broom of the System.  This is David Foster Wallace's first novel, which he wrote while still in college.  After reading the darker, more serious essays, I was pleased to find myself laughing throughout this novel.  The G.O.D. (Great Ohio Desert) and the family relationships are just part of the highly enjoyable reading experience.  Even back then it had hints of the potential for highly complicated storytelling technique, but this novel only has embedded stories, no footnotes or endnotes.

I bought Infinite Jest for myself not too long after this point.  But I didn't read it.  My friend who had recommended him in the first place made it clear I was "not yet ready" to read Infinite Jest, and sent me off to read a bunch of other post-modern authors in the meantime.  I'm not sure I'm ready now, but more on that later.

The last book I've read by David Foster Wallace isn't really a book, but a commencement speech repurposed into a book, one I picked up and read in May 2012.  It is probably his best known piece of work to the majority of the population - This is Water.

You can actually listen to him giving the speech in its entirety here:

I can't read the book version, I can't listen to his speech, without tearing up.  It is all about how if you can think of life the right way, you can get through it and even grow.  But he took his own life, so it makes me sad that despite this being his message, he couldn't make it through himself.

My favorite little bit follows, and is a good example of how Wallace writes, and honestly this particular passage reminds me of my favorite bits of another book, Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon:
"But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars - compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things." 
Perhaps there has been enough time for me to separate David Foster Wallace's greatest work from the way his life ending.  Perhaps I have done enough homework and other reading that this won't serve as an impossible challenge.  Or perhaps this, like other books I have abandoned, will prove to be just another supposedly fun thing I'll never do again.  Wallace would understand either way.  So here I go!


  1. I hope you like it! If you're reading it in print, use 2 bookmarks--one for the footnotes, one for the main text. I want to read it again, but right now my queue is too long...that said, there is a certain amount of "discovery" as you read it the first time, and I'm jealous you get to go through that!

    1. The first 30 pages went down a lot more easily than I remember it being. And good advice about the two bookmarks!


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