In Which He Exhales with Relief and Gets a Small Case of the Shivers

Usually what you hear about Infinite Jest is that it’s difficult and long and like climbing a mountain and dear sweet lord, those end notes and the esoteric information and the pages-long sentences and…

Of course, long-time fans of the work don’t gripe about these things, but it’s what you hear from people who’ve tried and failed to read it (or opted not to give it a shot at all based on similar comments).

So then to read things from new readers (and fellow zombie bloggers) like this from Anna:

So imagine my surprise, then, when I start reading and it’s not bad. It’s not so opaque as to be incomprehensible, only opaque enough to be, you know, interesting. It’s funny. Sure, I’ve highlighted some parts. may become my home page. But it’s…wow. It’s good. It’s readable. Is it possible that I might even like it?

and this from James:

So far, I’m really enjoying the novel.  It’s challenging (even taxing) in places.  But, on the whole, it’s solidly entertaining.  DFW throws in enough humor and suggestion of things to come to keep me happily chewing through his prose.  It’s not, so far, the most difficult or challenging book I’ve been subjected to (or, in some cases, have subjected myself to).  And that’s a relief.  And there are rewards at every turn:  a novel turn of phrase here, a darkly comic situation there, a scrap of esoteric knowledge, nice little references to what’s gone on before, etc.

is really encouraging and exciting and even in a way validating. I’ve spent years being defensive about the book, even making pre-judgments about how well it would be received by some person or another and declining to recommend it from time to time on the basis of its difficulty. But reading my fellow bloggers’ comments and tracking #infsum on twitter is really invigorating for me, reminding me that, yes, there are parts of the book that are hard, and it’s a big investment to read the thing, but there’s so much reward too, so much humor and humanity and heart that even those doubtful about their chances of slogging all the way through it are finding it to be doable and maybe even likable.

Watching as people discover that reward in spite of (or because of) some of the difficulty helps me relive the wonderment of my own first reading (which wonderment I had sort of lost sight of). And in a weird way, it makes me proud. What exactly I’m proud of I can’t say. I suppose there’s a temptation, as an early appreciator, to feel like something of a pioneer, but that’s not the target (at least not the main one) of my pride. I can’t really be proud of the book, since it’s not something I had a hand in creating. And it’s presumptuous and a little silly to say that I’m proud of Wallace (though I guess I am). So I can’t put my finger on it. But every time I witness one of these little discoveries, I get a little catch in my chest, a little thrill, sometimes even a little shiver, and it makes me really glad to be playing along.

2 thoughts on “In Which He Exhales with Relief and Gets a Small Case of the Shivers

  1. Anna Swenson June 23, 2009 / 9:44 pm

    This made me smile. So glad you’re finding pleasure, not pain, in a thousand bandwagon-jumpers suddenly reading a book you’ve loved for years.

  2. Brian June 27, 2009 / 1:54 am

    I have to admit being a little puzzled by how big a deal people make of the books length and difficulty. My main feeling about having read IJ ten years ago was that it was fun, and engrossing, and crushing, and generally life-affirming. And as for its length, I mean, come on. The Harry Potter books taken together dwarf it, and I never hear people talking about how intimidated they are to read them… anyway, all that to say, I am SO glad so many folks are discovering the wonder that is IJ this summer. After my wife finished it a few years ago she said that every American should read it. I agree.

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