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Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Literary Blog Hop, A Difficult Read

Literary Blog Hop The prompt for this week's Literary Blog Hop hosted by The Blue Bookcase (for my non-book-blog readers, a short description of what, exactly this means, is below) is to describe the most difficult literary book I've read and why it's difficult.
Easy one: Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon. I spent pretty much the whole summer in close range, hand-to-hand combat with this novel, and have written several times about why it's so hard. Here's my post from May when I was about half way through describing why it's difficult. And here's my post upon finishing it — a fake conversation with Tommie P, in which I took the opportunity to vent about how ludicrously tough it is.

So, since I'm pretty much Gravity's Rainbowed out, the second most difficult book I've ever read is Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. I read this book from Oct. 7th through Dec. 14, 2008 — right after DFW  committed suicide (in Sept, 2008). So it was extraordinarily difficult to read in the sense that, since DFW is my all-time favorite writer, I was reading his masterpiece when he was no longer in the world. There was just something incredibly sad about that, especially when I came across this quote about two-thirds of the way through: "It’s weird to feel like you miss someone you’re not even sure you know."

But it's a difficult read in the traditional sense of "difficult," too  — it's not exactly a John Grisham. To start with, it's 1,079 pages long. It includes 378 footnotes spanning 96 pages. And for about the first 200 pages, you really have no idea what's going on. DFW jumps around from scene to scene, creating an alternate reality, near-future world. He goes back and forth in time — and because years are sponsored by corporations (Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar, eg.), you're not really sure whether you're in a scene chronologically after the scene that immediately preceded it in the book, or several years before. DFW's style is often described as difficult as well — dude has quite the vocabulary, can spend four pages on the same paragraph, and can spend 200+ words on the same sentence. It's an acquired taste, to be sure — but one I love! While I was reading the novel, I did a silly little blog about my thoughts. Here's my post with a little more about why Infinite Jest is so difficult.

Infinite Jest is easily in my top 5 favorite novels of all time. The reasons? Other than writing that is some of the best ever rendered in the English language, the genius of the novel is comparing different types of addiction — to substances and to entertainment  — in such a way that the line between the two becomes quite blurry. Last December, I wrote a brief tribute to DFW on my one-year anniversary of finishing the book. Here that is, if you're interested. I'm still incredibly sad that he's gone. 

(The Literary Blog Hop is essentially a networking event for book blog dorks. Several bloggers post about the same prompt, and then get to post a link to their Website on the host's site. The, they Make sense?)

28 comments:

  1. Great post sir. I have been wanting to read Infinite Jest for a while now, but it's a book so intimidating and absolute and I hold DFW in such high esteem, I want to find the perfect moment to to fall into it.

    You put me a step closer to Infinite Jest sir.

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  2. Both these books are so great it makes me think I really don't need to ever read anything else. I'm sure you have, but if you haven't, you should read David Lipsky's Rolling Stone obit Death of a Genius. So incredibly sad.

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  3. @Ben - Do it. Do it! It's a book you'll definitely want to read more than once, so why not knock the first time out of the way now?! Thanks for following, too...

    @Ken - Yeah, I've probably read it about four times, actually. Indeed, one of the saddest things I've ever read. Lipsky's book (Becoming Yourself) based on those interview is okay - interesting, but not great. http://thenewdorkreviewofbooks.blogspot.com/2010/05/becoming-yourself-roadtrip-with-david.html

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  4. I am sort of in awe of your fortitude. If I find books that difficult, I usually give up. Bad Sandy.

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  5. Your fake conversation with Pynchon is one of my favorite posts.

    I think I'd need to mentally prepare myself before getting into Infinite Jest. That and a series of notes to try to keep everything straight.

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  6. What the ... I swear I left a comment about an hour ago but it's not showing up? Anyway, I think I said that long, difficult books tend to become favorites to me because I have to invest so much in them.
    Thanks for participating this week Greg!

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  7. Great Post-I love GR and have yet to read any David Foster Wallace-maybe Infinite Jest is not the first of his works I should read!-I am now a follower of your blog and will come back later and read more if your posts-thanks for visiting my blog

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  8. I know my limits. Sadly, I'm a shallow reader. I like to go out far in the ocean, but I don't like the water to go over my head.

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  9. @Sandy - No shame in that - I totally understand the "too many books to read ones you're not enjoying" argument. But for me, it's sort of an OCD MUST FINISH thing...

    @Red - Ah, thanks! The thing that helped me most with Infinite Jest was a book called Elegant Complexity, by Greg Carlisle. It really helps orient you in time, and explains how things connect to each other. Try it - I couldn't recommend Infinite Jest more highly. It's fantastic! (And parts take place in Boston...)

    @IngridLola - Hey, thanks for hosting us.

    @mel u - I wouldn't say I "loved" GR, but I sure tolerated the heck out of it! ;) For DFW, I'd recommend starting with some of his essays - Consider the Lobster is awesome!

    @readerbuzz - Good analogy. :)

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  10. The IJ footnotes defeated me on my first attempt--largely because I was reading it on a Sony eReader that was definitely NOT made for footnoted works. I'll give it a second go in 2011--you've convinced me that it's well worth the effort.

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  11. I tried Pynchon once - got about 50 pages into Mason & Dixon before giving up. Still may try DFW one day...

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  12. Greg, sounds like we read Infinite Jest right around the same time. I actually started it a couple weeks before DFW's passing, which made his novel's subject matter all the more immediate, especially as goes his very brilliant run down of the finer points of suffering from depression. He certainly possessed a sense of empathy unparalleled by any author I've heretofore read; hard to imagine anyone that possibly could. Which is what made him such a great observer of the human condition, what's more.

    I eagerly anticipate the forthcoming release of his unfinished novel "The Pale King."

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  13. Gravity Rainbow is up next on my list. We I hope I can get through it. I have heard how hard it is so am getting a little intimated.

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  14. I have read a lot of classics in my school and college years. And some still remain my favorites. However, there are a few I could never get into..


    Here is my Literary Blog Hop post!

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  15. Both of these books are on my to read before I die list along with Ulysses, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and well, others in the same vein. 2011 is the year I read at least two of them; Ulysses is up in January, but I'm thinking Infinite Jest will be my summer book. I'll be emailing questions I have to you. :)

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  16. @Patrick - Yeah, I've heard others say they gave up trying IJ on an e-reader too. You really do need to employ the two-bookmark strategy and flip back and forth. The footnotes add sooo much!

    @JoAnn - Haven't ever tried Mason & Dixon, but given my experience with GR, I'm not sure I have the heart.

    @Matt - Empathy, indeed. And that was the first time depression ever made sense to me. I forget who, but someone once described DFW has having the rare gift of allowing his readers to think along with him. And he said, a book has to teach you how to read it. IJ was all of those things. I loved it! I'm about due for a re-read, actually...perhaps before The Pale King next April, which I'm also eagerly anticipating as well.

    @Hillary - It is definitely not easy, but stick with it. It's pretty good feeling to finish it. ;)

    @Gautami - Oh yeah? Interesting. Which ones couldn't you get in to?

    @Trisha - Ulysses was on mine, until I read GR. Now, I'm not too sure I care. Good luck! And good luck with IJ, too! I'm excited for you...

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  17. Yeah Pynchon is one of those authors that I sort of stay away from...

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  18. your post makes me re-evaluate my notions about Infinite Jest. I've read some scathing review about it, and have thus become wary. But who knows, maybe I'm missing out on a literary goldmine here.

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  19. Oh, boy. I recently purchased both of these books. Haven't attempted either - but the challenge is definitely on. Let's see if I survive Warn and Peace, first.

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  20. Gravity's rainbow, is the very next book from my TBR, as I've already read V & the crying of lot 49 this year, not read Infinite Jest, but your's is the 2nd write up I've seen on it, & it sounding more & more appealing
    Thanks.
    Parrish

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  21. DFW is still Dallas-Fort Worth Intl. Airport to me. LOL! To date, I have never read anything by David Foster Wallace. I think the first I ever heard of him was his suicide. Anyway, thanks for the suggestion, I will have a look-see at his writing. Excellent post, and again congrats on getting through the Pynchon--you have my respect.

    Cheers! Chris

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  22. I LOVE DFW. Have you read Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself?

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  23. Your appreciation for DFW and Infinite Jest is infectious! I'm pushing Infinite Jest to the top half of my list of reads for next year. Sad when we lose our favorite authors. Wonderful response.

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  24. Just found your blog from the blog hop. I loved your blog name so much that you were the first one I decided to browse. It sounds like Infinite Jest isn't for me, but I'm glad that it has found an appreciative audience.

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  25. @Amanda - I may give one more of his books a try, just to confirm that I'll stay away from him from now on.

    @MJ - I can't even begin to imagine what a "scathing" review of IJ would consist of! ;) Give it a shot - it is incredibly fun and rewarding!

    @Roof Beam - I know it was a typo, but "Warn and Peace" cracked me up. I'd do Infinite Jest first - it's a much, much more satisfying reading experience than Gravity's Rainbow, in my opinion.

    @Parrish - Good luck with GR. My own opinion is that Infinite Jest is infinitely more appealing than GR! ;)

    @Christopher - Thanks for the congrats! Yeah, the writer DFW is awesome - definitely suggest giving him a read!

    @Christina - I did. Haunting. Here were my thoughts on it after finishing: http://thenewdorkreviewofbooks.blogspot.com/2010/05/becoming-yourself-roadtrip-with-david.html

    @kinnareads - Woohoo! Glad I could help you move IJ up your priority list. Please let me know when you begin - I'll be interested to hear what you think!

    @Louise - Thanks for stopping by!

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  26. Greg, your DFW-world domination scheme is coming along nicely, I see. Pynchon intrigues me partly for the secrecy with which he shrouds himself. Gravity's Rainbow has been having a great time hanging out on my bookshelf for about three years now. Maybe I'll just read your blog instead;)!

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  27. This reminds me of your Pynchon tweets while you were reading...very funny.

    These two books do sound pretty hard. I tend to avoid difficult reads (which is why I haven't made it to Bolano's 2666 yet) but i'll have to get on it soon.

    Great post.

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