This Jest Seems Infinite

I finished Infinite Jest. It took me five years. I’m proud that I kept at it and didn’t quit, but I am not happy that it took that long or that I am in a minority of readers who didn’t enjoy it.

The novel is David Foster Wallace’s most famous work. It was published in 1996 and was a best-seller and widely praised. It is more than 1,000 pages long. It has 100 pages of footnotes.

The only thing I had read by Wallace before was his collection of essays, Consider the Lobster, which I liked.  Infinite Jest is nothing like those essays.

hatI have a few friends who rate it as one of their favorites and a few more people I know who were unable to finish reading it.  I’m not alone as shown by the fact that you can buy hats and t-shirts stating that you’re in that group (seen above). 

I never got past page 100 in the book and had to return it to the library. I might not have ever picked it up again but I was gifted some Audible books and so I figured I can certainly make it through the other 900 pages as an audiobook.  Sadly, the Audible version didn’t make things much easier.

I started reading in January 2017 and finished in January 2022. Now, that it was a solid five years of reading and listening. According to my Goodreads account, there were more than 200 other books I read during that time period. 

I didn’t enjoy the story or footnotes at all, so what compelleded me to keep going?  I’m not sure. I wrote earlier about the same situation with a John Irving novel and Irving is an author I very much enjoy reading. But it is very rare for me to walk out on a movie or give up on a book once I start reading.

The novel’s structure is unconventional and it includes endnotes (388, including some that have their own footnotes). The novel’s primary locations are the Enfield Tennis Academy (E.T.A.) and the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House which are near each other in suburban Boston, Massachusetts.

I am hard-pressed to summarize a plot. The multiple narratives are somewhat connected via a film, also called Infinite Jest, and sometimes known as “the Entertainment.”

I suppose I kept picking up on the novel because some friends liked it so much and the very positive reviews. It made TIME magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005.  

The novel’s title is from Hamlet in that famous scene when Hamlet holds the skull of the court jester, Yorick, and says, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!” 

Hamlet is a sad man. Lots of death in that play. Not a lot of joy in Infinite Jest or Wallace either. David Foster Wallace battled devastating depression his whole life and committed suicide in 2008. His unfinished novel, The Pale King, was published in 2011. I don’t think I’ll start that one.

Call Me Ishmael

Moby-Dick

November 14, 1851: Moby-Dick is published in New York. It is 635 pages. The previous month, a censored version of the novel had been published in London. It was in three volumes and titled The Whale.

November is a good month to read the novel. It’s an anniversary and it is the month the story begins.

You don’t have to read the whole novel. How about one chapter?

  • Chapter 9: The Sermon. Father Mapple delivers a sermon to a congregation of sailors, sailors’ wives, and widows in the New Bedford Whalers’ Chapel. Ishmael and Queequeg are there. Mapple reads a hymn about Jonah – that Biblical character who was swallowed by a hat else?] a WHALE:
  • Chapter 28: Ahab. This is the Captain’s first appearance after 27 chapters. The crew hadn’t seen him yet either. He doesn’t speak here.
  • Chapter 30: The Pipe is only a page long.
  • Chapter 32- Cetology Some people suggest you skip the interchapter. I have read the book cover to cover and also read just the interchapters cover to cover. I like all the whale and whaling knowledge.
  • Chapter 40: Midnight, Forecastle. The mythology of the sailor through ones from different lands and cultures.
  • Chapter 42: The Whiteness of the Whale
  • Chapter 54: The Town-Ho’s Story  Melville tells a different story and foreshadows the end of his novel.
  • Chapter 70 – The Sphinx
  • Chapter 89: Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish
  • Chapter 114- The Glider
  • Chapter 125: The Log and the Line. Ahab and his cabin boy understand each other. Because they are both crazy.

Maybe you should just open the book at random and read that chapter.

Moby-Dick continues to be a novel that everyone has heard of and can give you a 25-word book report even if they never read it.

If you’re not going to pick up the novel, at least read the opening passage.

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.”

I took to the sea this month. I visited a friend who lives a very short walk from the Atlantic Ocean because it was “a damp, drizzly November in my soul” and I didn’t want to start “knocking people’s hats off.” I didn’t take to the ship. I was still a landlubber but I was there.

 

Writing About Writing

There are almost as many books about writing as there are writers who have published books. Well, maybe not quite that many books on writing but there are a lot of them.

Here are three that are on my shelf.

Stephen King has sold more than 350 million books. Obviously, he knows how to write what sells, but does that mean he can tell you how to write? I had my doubts when someone recommended and handed this book to me. It very pleasantly surprised me.

There are real insights into the creative process. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft has some of his life story mixed in with what he has learned. I like the section on his editing process. It also has a good reading list if you want to go deeper.

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (also available as an audiobook) is also about writing and about being a writer. The two things are inextricably connected.

Readers of the book often say they like her acceptance of “sh@#ty first drafts” in order to get to “good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” This book is often humorous but it takes writing very seriously.

I read the book first 25 years ago after having been writing for much longer but still not allowing myself to feel like I was a Writer.

The odd title is explained in this way: “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

That is good general advice about doing many things – weeding the garden, cleaning out the garage, hiking a long trail, writing a poem.

If a more stern approach is needed to get you writing, then On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction might be a better choice. Non-fiction is sometimes viewed as “more serious” than fiction or poetry. That is not true, but William Zinsser’s approach is more instruction manual. It is rarely funny – even in a chapter about writing humor. (I discovered in a college course on humor that humor is not comedy and often not funny in the sense of laughter.

I’m making this book sound too stern. Zinsser is a writer, editor and teacher and all three show in the book. He began as a newspaper writer, went on to magazines and has written books on baseball, music, travel, and those and other genres are covered, including people, places, science, technology, business, sports, the arts and memoir.

I read this book before using it as a text in teaching a writing course. It is probably consider a classic by now, much like The Elements of Style which was standard book to have on the syllabus fifty years ago.

If there is any of the writer’s life that he mixes with writing, it might be that he feels that “clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.”

The best advice to become a better writer is still two simple things: read widely and often, especially in the genre you want to write; stop reading and start writing.

In Our Own Secret Annex

Annelies
Annelies in her school photograph, 1941

Anne Frank’s diary was first published in English in 1952 and is known as Diary of a Young Girl. The first edition was first published in Dutch in 1947, under the title Het Achterhuis. which is translated as “the house behind,” “the annex” or “the secret annex.”

I read the book when I was between 13 and 14 which was the same age that she was writing it. It was only recently that I discovered that Anne Frank had two versions of her story.  The first version is her spontaneous journal entries. The second version is a revised version by Anne herself started when she was thinking about her writing being published.

I did the same thing myself in my own teenaged-years journals. I changed how I wrote though my initial idea of “publication” was it being found by my family and then later by a wife or my children. At 13, I know even thought about being a famous writer one day and having my biographers reading it.

I also think that we all have our secret annexes where we sometimes hide. And some of us write there and write about there.

Anne was her nickname. Annelies was her birth name. I like that name better than Anne.  Annelies Marie Frank was born June 12, 1929, and when I saw her birthday on the almanac last Saturday I decided to get a copy of that revised diary if I can and (re)read it this week.

We know that after the war, Anne’s father, Otto Frank, was given the diary, along with some other papers, which had been left behind when the family was taken to concentration camps in 1944.

He said that at first, he couldn’t bear to read it. When he finally read it, he believed that Anne wrote it with the intent of trying to publish it one day and he worked at getting it into print. We know he edited it himself combining parts of the two versions together.

Though it is a perennially read book, 16 American publishers rejected the English translation before Doubleday picked it up in 1952.

There are now a number of newer editions with parts restored and annotated versions.

At 13, I think I had a crush on Annalies. It may have been that I wanted to save her. Anne probably died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. To add to that sadness, it was about two weeks before the camps were liberated in spring 1945.

I wrote on another blog about a poem by Andrew Motion (“Anne Frank Huis“) that was written immediately after his visit to the Anne Frank museum/house (huis) in Amsterdam. I finally got to Amsterdam in 2019 and I had mixed feeling about visiting the Secret Annex. I read online that it is very small and very spare. It didn’t feel like it would be similar to when I visited writers’ homes before. It felt like it would be sad. The poem set me thinking about how houses are “haunted” by those who lived in them. Not in a ghost or poltergeist way, but supernatural in the dictionary sense of “relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe.”

It turned out that we couldn’t get tickets for the time that we would be there, so the universe decided for me. My wife and I did walk by the place. They call it a house but they lived in rooms above her father’s place of business attached to a warehouse. The front doors were painted a very somber black. I think Annalies would prefer that we read the words she wanted us to read rather than visit a place she never wanted to be.

ane frank house door

Looking for Dog-eared Pages

dog-ear page
Dog-ear (and marginalia) in my copy of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets – The Dry Salvages that I must have folded back in college.

The turned-down corner of a page is known as a dog-ear. The term comes from the idea that the ears of many breeds of dogs flap over and that you can often sense a dog’s mood based on whether or not its ears are forward, upright, or back.

The practice of dog-earing a book page is generally frowned upon by people who want to preserve books and by librarians when you’re doing it to their collections. Reference books often have dog-ears.

I first discovered dogears on library books and I wondered what was on that page that someone wanted to mark. This was especially interesting to me when I was reading fiction. Was it simply a bookmaker of where they left off reading? Probably not, since there were multiple dog-ears and you could undo a fold as you read further to be less damaging. So, what was on that page? Was it a great passage? Maybe it was a sexy part of the novel.

One dog-earring reader has written that:

“Dog-eared pages are a sign of love, the physical manifestation of the connection between the reader and his book. Leaving a dog-ear on a book you’re reading is like kissing your partner goodbye. It’s a promise to return and continue the romance. And that’s not a shameful thing.”

Dog-earing other people’s books is not right but I do it to my own books. I don’t usually do it as a bookmark. It’s easy enough to grab a scrap of paper nearby for that. For me, it is to mark a page I might want to return to later. I see them in poetry books marking my favorite poems. I used to put pencil marks on the table of contents but that seems even more of mistreatment.

When I find them made by previous readers, I don’t think vandalism. I think of it as a less-damaging marginalia note to future readers, a sign of a deep reader paying attention to the text.

I’m not a big fan of reading on screens but I do have a tablet and I know that Kindles and such allow for highlighting and marking and in some cases, you can see those left by other readers. These do no damage. But in the same way that I still like to hold a book in my hands, I like to see the folded page corner.

Dog-ears can range in size just as real dog’s ears vary in size. The tip of the page is standardized, but I have seen a quarter or half a page folder over. That seems extreme, though someone showed me once how they fold so that the point directs attention to a particular line. I only half fold magazine pages as a progress marker knowing the magazine will end up recycled anyway.

Multiple dog-eared pages (especially on successive pages) can make a whole section of the book bulge even when viewed from the side. This leads me to a tributary of the dog-ear – the broken spine.

books

A broken spine, caused by folding back the entire open book, is real damage. A librarian friend told me that it often happens in books that patrons flatten in order to make a photocopy. This is not a good practice but I know that in my youth I would sometimes hold open in my palm a copy of something like Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence and that spy in the house of love, Anais Nin, in the library to see where the pages had been (if not dog-eared) opened intensely. It wasn’t always the “dirty parts.”

In Nin’s writing, I find: “When he first stepped out of the car and walked towards the door where I stood waiting, I saw a man I liked. In his writing, he is flamboyant, virile, animal, magnificent. He’s a man whom life makes drunk, I thought. He is like me.”

In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, it might open up to: “Then as he began to move, in the sudden helpless orgasm, there awoke in her new strange trills rippling inside her. Rippling, rippling, rippling, like a flapping overlapping of soft flames, soft as feathers, running to points of brilliance, exquisite, exquisite and melting her all molten inside. It was like bells rippling up and up to culmination. She lay unconscious of the wild little cries she uttered at the last. But it was over too soon, too soon, and she could no longer force her own conclusion with her own activity. This was different, different. She could do nothing.”

When I borrowed a copy of Jeffrey Eugenides’s not particularly erotic novel, Middlesex, it opened to: “So that was our love affair. Wordless, blinkered, a nighttime thing, a dream thing. There were reasons on my side for this as well. Whatever it was that I was best revealed slowly, in flattering light. Which meant not much light at all. Besides, that’s the way it goes in adolescence. You try things out in the dark. You get drunk or stoned and extemporize. Think back to your backseats, your pup tents, your beach bonfire parties. Did you ever find yourself, without admitting it, tangled up with your best friend? Or in a dorm room bed with two people instead of one, while Bach played on the chintzy stereo, orchestrating the fugue? It’s a kind of fugue state, anyway, early sex. Before the routine sets in, or the love. Back when the groping is largely anonymous. Sandbox sex. It starts in the teens and lasts until twenty or twenty-one. It’s all about learning to share. It’s about sharing your toys.”

please commentDo you dog-ear books. If so, why?
Do you look for dog-ears in borrowed books?
Have you discovered a passage, book, or author from a dog-eared page?

Sailing Again on the Pequod

Melville

Readers return to Moby-Dick year after year. I return to it in some form of reading every year. Often at the end of the year. This December, I have turned to it again, but in 2020 I think I can only handle selected chapters. (Feel free to guess at which chapters I will revisit.) The full voyage is too much for me this year.

When Melville’s father died in 1832, he lost his financial security. He tried being a teacher (school-master) and clerking (“I prefer not to.”), but it wasn’t for him and they didn’t pay very well.

In 1840 he signed up on the whaler, Acushnet, out of New Bedford, Massachusetts. He was just 21. He lasted two years before the mast and then he deserted the ship he was on. He got several novels from his days at sea and on the exotic islands after he jumped ship.

Published in 1851, Captain Ahab and his monomaniacal pursuit of the white whale is mythic grandeur, poetic, and very symbolic.

The novel’s narrator, Ishmael, is our guide and the filtered lens that we view Ahab, Queequeg, Starbuck and the others.

One year, I only reread the “inter-chapters” of the natural history of whales. That reading is far less existential.

Melville knew he was taking on very big themes in the novel. His first publisher in England of Moby-Dick, or, The Whale hoped that good readers would find in it not only an adventure story but also “a pregnant allegory to illustrate nothing less than the mystery of human life.”

An episode of the program Open Source with Christopher Lydon this year reminds us that “For a century now, Moby-Dick has been read as something like American Scripture, surely our greatest novel. It gets read as a complex mirror of the age before the Civil War but also of a nation’s fate for all time.”

Why read Moby-Dick? Like the tales of King Arthur, different ages find different things in the story and characters.  What can a story from the mid-1800s tell us about our own reality?

A book is a mirror. If a fool looks into it, you can’t expect a genius to look back. The mirror and the book don’t change, but the person gazing into it does and that changes what you see in yourself and the background where you stand.

The novel has been studied and analyzed as a psychological study, philosophical treatise, a story of whaling, a romance, a sea adventure full of eccentric characters, a symbolic allegory, and a drama of heroic conflict.

On the program, they look at the novel as a “textbook on tyranny, as eco-warning, as queer fiction, as a meditation on race, as American magic and American tragedy.”

They walk the novel through American history:

“Before the Civil War, when Melville wrote Moby-Dick, you saw shadows of slavery on a free society.

In World War One, it was about merchant empires crashing.

In the Cold War reading, it was free Ishmael against Ahab’s dictatorship.

In Eco Time, it’s about a war on nature, at sea.

In Obama time, it was about Queequeg, the noble stranger.

Moby-Dick attacks

In Trump time, it’s about Ahab’s rage and his grip on the crew, his base.”

And in this pandemic and politics year that may well be the strangest of our lifetime, what will I find when I set sail once again on the Pequod?

This time, I am setting sail with an audiobook version of the novel. There are so many editions of Moby-Dick (print and audio) that I could pick a new one every year and not run out in this lifetime.

Is Moby-Dick my favorite novel? In Elizabeth Hardwick’s words, it is“the greatest novel in American literature.” Is Citizen Kane my favorite film? It is often called “the best American film ever.” I answer No to the favorite question, but they are both great works that I have gone to multiple times as a reader and viewer.

audiobook


Go Deeper
The Moby-Dick Big Read

Was There a Real Moby Dick? from the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Best Book of 1947: Call Me Ishmael by Charles Olson