Category Archives: Infinite Jest

Reading Year in Review and Top Ten Books of 2011.

My blog is about to celebrate its 5th anniversary next month.  I wrote my first post on January 6th, 2007, partly to slow down and think about what I was reading again and partly in an effort to get more comfortable with sharing my writing in a “public” space (I would like to thank my 4 loyal readers at this time: Mom, Dad, Alison Covey, Kendra Bloom).  Every year when I’m home for Christmas I read every post I wrote over the year and choose the top ten best books I’ve read.

Usually, it takes me many hours to reread my blog posts for the year. As I read, I take notes and end up with a list at least 20 contenders for the coveted top ten.  I have to do some serious thinking and rereading of posts to decide which books had the biggest impact on my thought life–and then spend some serious time laughing about the nerdy ways I spend my time.  This year was not so difficult.  Sadly, I don’t think I can attribute that to any increased coolness to my life, but I do think I have a few answers/self justifications for the reasons why this year I had only 23 posts (2008 holds the all-time high of 97):

  • The spring was filled with YA books that enriched my teaching life and a side project I’m working on, but weren’t necessarily significant enough for me to subject my loyal readers (see above) to. 
  •  The summer, normally the two months that I read the highest number of books, was filled with Infinite Jest, a book that I felt I needed to finish before I posted anything about it.  (Then, the fall happened and I still have 5 additional posts about Infinite Jest sitting in my drafts.) 
  • This fall, I got caught up reading books for and with my students. Many of my Saturday mornings, normally my drink-a-hot-beverage-and-write-about-my-reading time, were filled with training for my half marathon.  Also, my book club choice was For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway, which is not a read-before-you-fall-asleep kind of book: I would make it literally 3 pages and fall asleep. I’m finally about to finish it, which I owe to traveling 3 out of the last 5 weekends on U.S. Airways, who does not offer in-flight television.  

All that to say, it is interesting to look back on a year through the lens of reading. I am nerdily excited for what 2012 will bring in my reading life…and the reflections that accompany good books.  As for the Top Ten, I have to credit Margaret, who is the sole other member of my book club, because six of our choices made the top ten list this year. So, in no particular order:

The Hours by Michael Cunningham/Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (rereads)
These books have to be paired together and were two of the most thought provoking reads of the year.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
This book received an insane amount of press when it was published last year.  Overall, especially because my book club read read The Corrections first, I throughly enjoyed getting inside the mind of Franzen.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteygart
Not especially well written, but it definitely was the instigator of many great conversations and some science-fiction/technology induced nightmares.

Beloved by Toni Morrison
I think this was the most historically significant, jarring book that I read this year, and combined with its lyrical prose, it left me speechless.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Short. Beautiful. Inspiring.

Bossypants by Tina Fey
The most enjoyable book of the year.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Harder than my book club’s run with the Russians a few years ago and encompassing almost all of my summer, this book was well worth it.

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years  by Donald Miller (reread)
This book was a non-fiction, good reminder of all things I love about story and life.

The Summer Book by Tove Janssen(reread)
This book has become one of my yearly rereads and I’ve written about it a few times.  I spend the quiet, early summer mornings I have at my parents’ house on their screened in porch reading just a chapter or two a day so that I can savor and soak in it during my entire visit.  This year it was my respite from Infinite Jest, to make sure that reading was not only speaking into the my academically-minded side of my brain, but also my soul.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
I read the first book of this series as soon as it came out, on recommendation of our Teachers College professional developer.  I never finished the series because I felt like I knew enough to talk about it with kids and had so many other books to read.  However, after the Epic-Literary-Reread book club on Harry Potter with my students last year, I thought that it would be cool to do the same thing with The Hunger Games this year.  I read these books in about a week and was amazed to see all of the entry points for young readers to have uber literary conversations. I have also been amazed at how many of my adult friends have been reading the series and are eager to discuss. A post-movie discussion party is in the works.

Cheers to reading and a 2012 filled with more writing about it!

Infinite Jest and Advertising. Or, real goods are intangible.

Infinite Jest is the kind of book that has to be read slowly because not only are there sweeping themes and ideas to keep track of, but there are short passages and lines that speak volumes into American culture.  While I was reading, it was easy to gloss over those small details without considering them in a significant way.  I want to slow down with a few.  Here is one.

“V&V’s NoCoat campaign was a case study in the eschatology of emotional appeals…It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relieveable by purchase.  It just did it way more well than wisely,” (414).

It comes in a section where Hal, one of the main characters and a junior at the Tennis Academy, is “sinking emotionally into a kind of distracted funk.”  In what appears to be almost a complete aside with the connection only being that Hal once wrote a paper on the American ad industry, the narrator explains the atmosphere of advertising (as the book is set in the near-ish future).  This particular ad was from a company that created a nation-wide need for tongue scrapers: “when the nation became obsessed with the state of its tongue, when people would no sooner leave home without a tongue scraper and an emergency back-up tongue scraper than they’d fail to wash and brush and spray.”

A. This is hilarious,
B. but DFW’s sense of humor is not what I want to write about, though maybe over coffee some time?

His tone and manner of addressing the absurdity of such aspects and culture is so nonchalant and un-ironic (and reminds me of his essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again)–as though he is pointing out the obvious.  Yet, it is obvious only in the subconscious that we hardly ever bring out to play, because life is easier when we don’t listen to it.

How did it happen that we know our next purchase will not satisfy anything within us and yet we continue to believe and act on the hope that it will?  Why is it easier to believe and act on the promises in advertising than it is in the life truths we claim to profess?  What is going on in our brains when we feel great after buying something new? Why is retail therapy a thing? That people joke about?

We are ridiculous.

I want to drink from a well of Life.

Infinite Jest: a very general response to a very specific novel.

I read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace from June 1st-August 8th this summer, with just a 3 day break to read My Name is Asher Lev and a chapter each morning on the porch of The Summer Book while I was in Kentucky. I reread Anne of Avonlea right after to let my brain recover/not commit to anything super literary while trying to unpack this brick of a book (that I am thankful to never have to carry in my purse ever again).  All that to say, my summer reading looked very different from my usual devouring of books.  It was as if I were in a committed dating relationship with Infinite Jest.  I was talking with a colleague before school ended whose boyfriend had read the book and when he was half way through said: “Oh, I get it.  The infinite jest is that I am still reading this book.”  There were many times I felt the same way.

The main conclusion that I came to after finishing its 981 pages of tiny type narrative and 96 pages of even smaller type footnotes is that it is the kind of book that needs to be read twice.  (Crap.) Though I’m sure there are geniuses out there who could keep track of all the characters connections (see poster below by Sam Potts) and narrative threads (see digram below by in their minds while reading, but I was not one of them.  I’ve probably spent 5 or 6 hours so far researching the book and reading essays and taking notes with post it flags and feel like my understanding is still shallow at best.  I can retell the basic plot lines, but the craft that went into this book is like nothing I have ever seen and there is a part of me that is itching to start over and read it with a much deeper understanding.  Chances of that happening in the near future, though, are slim to none.  I wish I could take a graduate school course on this book with a brilliant but not condescending instructor.

created by Sam Potts 

created by

What I loved about this book is exactly what makes it so difficult to read: its intricacy and its depth–it is an artistic, critical work that forces the reader to be active: to ask questions, to do the mental gymnastics it requires, to step up and work hard to figure out what on earth is going on even when there will not be a definitive answer.  He address things from the nature of entertainment to the consumerist nature of the United States to depression to personal drive to personal recovery.  There is no way that I could address the book as a whole in a single blog post.  The retell alone would be absurd–and it is almost as if each piece of the puzzle that is Infinite Jest needs to be singularly treated and then juxtaposed with every other piece.  I start back at work tomorrow, so obviously that’s not going to happen.  What I’ve decided to do is respond to a few pieces of the book that I think are relevant to everyone, without giving a lot of context.  The book is filled with fleeting conversations and observations that the reader could ruminate on and discuss for hours–which is overwhelming in such an enormous book. But taken in very small chunks could be fodder for your next cocktail party conversation. People have those, right?