Category Archives: infinite jest

My Infinite Summer: Part II Of Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, from Girl With Curious Hair

Last week I discussed David Foster Wallace's important novella, "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way." I thought it had a number of flaws–in fact, I'd say that on the whole the novella doesn't work for me. Although last week I did mention that the piece is still worth reading, especially as a bridge between his early writing and his masterpiece, Infinite Jest. Now I'd like to write a little about why I think that is.

Several years after reading Infinite Jest, one of the things I still most admire about that book is Wallace's ability to nail down some of the contradictions and fallacies at the heart of America as a country. The fact that Wallace's insights still feel fresh 13 years after publication, and 5 years after I first read them, indicate to me that in Infinite Jest he got to the core of my country. That is to say, like other great American novels–Invisible Man, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby–Wallace plumbs so profoundly in Infinite Jest that his diagnosis of this nation will probably remain relevant as long as there is an American nation to talk about.

So what does this have to do with "Westward"? Two things. The first is that to a reader circa 2009, "Westward" is a very, very prescient work. I'd like to pull a few quotes to demonstrate what I mean:

Civilian populations held hostage by their fear of foreign target areas . . .

Credit is political. . . . It's a tool of the elite. You use credit without thinking, you're unthinkingly endorsing the status quo.

[On TV:] Incredibly comforting. You know just how the universe is going to be for the next half hour. Totally secure. Detached but connected. A womb with a view.

Their worst fears, which they'd slowly, supportively come to see were fiction, came true.

An age suspended between exhaustion and replenishment.

I'd say these quotes anticipate our current national mess fairly well. And the doozy, the one Wallace would essentially spend the rest of his career as a writer working out:

Turn your biggest fear into your one real desire.

The novella seems even more prescient when you consider that, though published in 1989 in Girl With Curious Hair, it's set in the early 1980s, in other words, roughly when a many of these trends that Wallace would so masterfully tangle with in Infinite Jest were in their infancy. In other words, Wallace is trying to map out the foundation of the era that we're all living through–and doing a pretty good job at it for a 27-year-old.

Although Wallace had dealt with these ideas separately in other places, I'm not aware of one single, cohesive work of his previous to Infinite Jest that attempts to bring them together in the fused way Wallace attempts in "Westward." He's not only putting these ideas into the same story–he's trying to work out how they're connected at the genetic level. That he ultimately failed to achieve this in "Westward" perhaps makes the magnitude of the accomplishment of Infinite Jest a little clearer (as well as giving an idea of why the book needed to be so long).

This verges on my second point, that in "Westward" we can see Wallace developing his idea of how American literature and American commerce are linked. Make no mistake: postmodern literature is an American invention, created, popularized, and dominated by American authors. it is an offshoot of America's postwar economic and cultural order, and it came of age almost concurrently with Wallace's own coming of age. There is no more sensible target for Wallace to set his reforming energies against.

Wallace's main contribution to this issue–one that authors are still dealing with (and that Wallace himself was trying to deal with when he died)–is the idea that the postmodern irony that these writers thrived on became co-opted by American commerce during the 1980s and '90s. Infinite Jest is of course a book that deals with many, many things, but one of the most significant of those must be the tug of war between the imperative to make art and the imperative to make money, and the ways in which this struggle can be translated into so many other cultural/commercial dichotomies that characterized America in the 1990s, and still do today.

This struggle of course sits right at the core of "Westward." Although I don't think he did it justice, in "Westward" Wallace finds an elegant central metaphor to corral his ideas about the havoc of unleashed metafiction, the co-option of art by commerce, and the logic of the American economy (always personified in Wallace by the advertisement): that central metaphor is of course the franchised Funhouse invented by Ambrose, i.e. John Barth. In Infinite Jest Wallace would split this into two central, but clearly related metaphors and find success.

In "Westward" Wallace is also gesturing toward a number of other things he would contemplate fully in Jest: the nature of depression and addiction; the gaze (and therefore isolation) felt by beautiful people in a fundamentally voyeuristic society; the disenchantment and confusion of the younger generation. About the only thing in "Westward" that I can't recall being done better and more thoroughly in Infinite Jest would be the character of J.D. Steelritter, the arch-capitalist who is masterminding the apocalyptic ad that will finally usher in the Age of Aquarius (economically speaking). It seems that in Infinite Jest Wallace would soften Steelritter (a father himself) from the capitalist run amuck to a much more Faustian character: the artist-father who loses his way, James Orin Incandenza (who himself does usher in a certain, related apocalypse of his own).

This change is perhaps emblematic of the change in Wallace as a whole. In Jest his characters are much more real, they're much more sympathetic, the cartoons and the sentimentality have been traded in for something that feels much more real. Wallace will have come a long way as an author and reached the full potential of the ideas he started out with when he began his writing life. (Sadly, just as he seemed to be making progress on a significant refurbishment of those ideas congruent with a somewhat changed America and a very much changed writer, depression forced him to suicide.) "Westward" is worth reading to see a raw, impassioned author hashing out his thoughts in plain view, as well as for more than a few glorious turns of phrase, and that is why I think this flawed work should be read by anyone interested in Wallace's fiction.

For a highly interesting, incredibly thorough, somewhat schematic read of "Westward" that takes into account much of the foregoing, see Understanding David Foster Wallace by Marshall Boswell, pp. 102 – 115. The applicable pages can be read for free on Google Book at this link.

My Infinite Summer: Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, from Girl With Curious Hair

Given the author's own thoughts on it, it's difficult to read David Foster Wallace's novella "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way" without bias:

Larry McCaffery: Why is meta-metafiction a trap? Isn’t that what you were doing in "Westward"?

David Foster Wallace: That’s a Rog. And maybe "Westward"’s only real value’ll be showing the kind of pretentious loops you fall into now if you fuck around with recursion. My idea in "Westward" was to do with metafiction what Moore’s poetry or like DeLillo’s "Libra" had done with other mediated myths. I wanted to get the Armageddon-explosion, the goal metafiction’s always been about, I wanted to get it over with, and then out of the rubble reaffirm the idea of art being a living transaction between humans, whether the transaction was erotic or altruistic or sadistic. God, even talking about it makes me want to puke. The "pretension." Twenty-five year-olds should be locked away and denied ink and paper. Everything I wanted to do came out in the story, but it came out just as what it was: crude and naive and pretentious.

Crude, naive, pretentious–absolutely. I conked out on this story just after the turbo-charged homemade car therein did (about 4/5 of the way through, when Wallace unwisely reaches his narrative climax before delivering 30-some pages of dense lecture and blatant allegory), but it's still a novella worth discussing at length.

If Wallace is trying to take metafiction to Armageddon here, then it's clear that the text he holds responsible for the genesis of said metafiction is John Barth's short story "Lost in the Funhouse." Barth is plainly embodied in creative writing professor Ambrose; in the story, Ambrose's titular funhouse is about to be made into a popular franchise of discos nationwide, much as Barth's metafiction was franchised out to a generation of young writers in creative writing programs.

The premise is thus: It's the early 1980s: "this awkwardest of post-Imperial decades, an age suspended between exhaustion and replenishment, between input too ordinary to process and input too intense to bear." The same marketer who is going to pack Ambrose's funhouses also happens to be the person who masterminded McDonalds' success. He's filming a mega-McDonalds commercial with every actor who has ever been in a McDonalds commercial. One of those actors is in Ambrose's creative writing class. She and a number of other characters are headed to the filming of the commercial in the middle of the Illinois corn.

The most noteworthy thing about "Lost in the Funhouse" was how Barth broke into the story every now and then to let the reader know what he was doing. It would sort of be like if a chatty pilot kept going on the PA system to tell you how the plane worked throughout the flight.

Wallace does this in "Westward" too, but in a way that makes it clear that he knows Barth already did that and is, in fact, trying to blow the whole thing up. So, for instance, we have a subsection in the middle of the story titled "A Really Blatant and Intrusive Interruption" that starts with:

As mentioned before–and if this were a piece of metafiction, which it's NOT, the exact number of typeset lines between this reference and the prenominate referent would very probably be mentioned, which would be a princely pain in the ass, not to mention cocky, since it would assume that a straightforward and anti-embellished account of a slow and hot and sleep-deprived . . .

That particular sentence ends a couple of pages later, so I'm not going to quote the whole thing. Still, this excerpt shows the tension that Wallace is trying to overcome in "Westward": essentially, he wants a middle course between the giddy (but empty and inward-facing) novelty of metafiction and the empathetic (but already exhausted) substance of straight realism. That's a fine goal to shoot for, but for some reason Wallace veers off-target to instead play increasingly obscure games and deliver a painful series of synopses that read more like a crude, early version of the essays on media he would later write than anything that belongs in a work of fiction, even an infinitely recursive, pseudo-metafictional one.

When Wallace abandons his preachier prose, "Westward" is often impressively entertaining and original. Wallace's prose is nimble and, at times, propulsive, showing shades of the author who would mature to Infinite Jest. There's a brilliant bit of slapstick humor involving a deadly sharp arrow, an airport lounge, and a down-on-his-luck salesman's breakfast pastry. There's also the ongoing portrait of a self-consciously avant-garde poet who refers to herself as "postmodern" and whose idea of a great bit of innovative writing is a 20-page poem consisting solely of punctuation. Any story that can make the following sentence work has some definite upside: "Ambrose and Robbe-Grillet and McElroy and Barthelme can fuck themselves awfully well." (The context for that is a tirade against metafiction (one of many here) that concludes with the admission that it's not all bad, leading to the quoted examples.)

Ultimately, though, Wallace is just trying too hard. In the later stages of his career he was taken to saying that he'd like to write a sincere sort of fiction that overcame the reflexive irony that was his generation's only defense against the American corporate economy. He would always follow that up with a declaration that all the fiction he'd tried in that vein was embarrassingly bad. "Westward" often feels like such fiction. The thing is, Wallace's continual inveighing against metafiction is first endearing in the ironic sort of way that only a clearly metafictional story warning about the perils of metafiction can be. But then you begin to suspect that he's really afraid of being thought a metafictionst and that at least some of this constant inveighing is self-conscious is fear. To wit:

Metafiction is untrue, as a lover. It cannot betray. It can only reveal. Itself is its only object. It's the act of a lonely solipsist's self-love, a night-light on the black fifth wall of being a subject, a face in a crowd. It's lovers not being lovers. Kissing their own spine. Fucking themselves.

Clear enough for you? Worse than this is when Wallace starts comparing dividing literature into subcategories to "dividing human being into white and black and brown and yellow and orange." As such melodramatic prose indicates, toward the end of "Westward," Wallace becomes more and more sentimental. It is not fun to watch, and it becomes deadly repetitive to read.

Still, I think there is much here for readers to consider, especially those who are interested in Infinite Jest. "Westward" is probably the best fictional text of Wallace's to prepare you for his masterpiece, and it is impressive to see how much of Wallace's later career is presaged in this one work. More on why I think that is in my next post on this novella.

Contra Infinite Summer

Valve bloger Scott Eric Kaufman offers what must be among the dumber reasons for not reading Infinite Jest:

Am I alone in finding the whole idea of Infinite Summer a little morbid? The renewed interest in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is an obvious Good Thing—a first step toward popular as well as academic canonization—but having lived through the recent Michael Jackson Media Event, I can’t help but wonder whether the desire to read Wallace’s novel is akin downloading Thriller because Some Important Someone died. Do I sound like I’m thwacking some straw man with shovel?

Of course downloading a 10-minute music video is comparable to pledging to read a 1000-page, very dense difficult novel.

But forget the facile ThrillerInfinite Jest comparison and consider that Infinite Summer is a website, which still in this day and age is very much different from a top-down, cable-TV-fueled "Media Event." Not to mention, the fact that someone could put Infinite Summer together several months after Wallace died must show some depth to the feelings that his death generated, both in his loyal reading public and those to whom Wallace was merely an object of curiosity.

In the same post, Kaufman goes on to semi-bash political blogger Ezra Klein for considering himself part of Wallace's generation, despite a 20-year age gap. Kaufman then inadvertently gives a great reason for reading Wallace's masterpiece:

Note that I’m not criticizing Klein for being born in a time of cultural plenty—I would rather not have spent the better part of a decade searching for this in vain—I’m merely pointing out that his inclusion of Foster Wallace [sic] among his contemporaries dumbfounds me . . . unless I chalk it up to the novel instead of the man. Wallace might not be Klein’s contemporary, but Infinite Jest could be. Now that I’m reading it again, I’m struck by how contemporary it feels. Everything that annoyed me about it in 1996 still annoys me now—the footnotes, subsidized time, the too-frequent self-indulgent sentence—but everything that felt new in 1996 still feels new now.

There are various reasons for why what was new in 1996 can still feel new now, and among them is that Wallace nailed America in Infinite Jest. He nailed it in 1996 when IJ was written, and he's still nailing it now because this country is still screwed up in the same ways Wallace diagnosed 13 years ago (albeit far more closer to the nadir at this point). I'd imagine that this, and not the media treatment (which, at any rate, has generally been more concerned with suicide references in his novels and the unfinished manuscript than the substance of Infinite Jest) better explains why so many people have expressed a sincere interest in reading Infinite Jest since Wallace died.

Observation vs Research in David Foster Wallace’s Writing

I like what Andrew has to say about Infinite Jest's "research":

Specialized knowledges pervade the book—tennis, recreational drug use, optics, burglary, even punting (surely the most narrowly specialized position in football). But one of the more (in)famous elements of "research" in the novel is the filmography Wallace includes in endnote 24. In the age of IMDb, we might be apt to forget that the filmography is (or was) actually a highly specialized and intensely laborious feat of archival research, but the almost eight-and-a-half pages of James O. Incandenza's collected works should surely remind us that a filmography is actually the product of research, and not Googling.

Yet there was, of course, no research necessary for composing this "artifact"—having no basis in reality, everything in it is a pure product of imagination. Yet Wallace never seems comfortable simply acknowledging that the imagination that produced it is his own. In just about as many ways as possible, Wallace continually disrupts the filmography with secondary or tertiary commentary to let us know that he's looking at it from the outside too: I kept waiting for that click where the self-distancing irony would drop away and, as with Borges or Pynchon or Bolaño or even (especially) Auster, you get a real note of dread or mystery where the author seems to have been finally convinced of the reality of his artifice. Even in the last entry, which is about The Entertainment itself, there are three skeptical footnotes embedded.

If you read all of Andrew's post, you'll see that this insight comes in the context of a consideration of the postmodern novel of information. Essentially, Andrew is saying Wallace wrote a novel of information in which the research was replaced by something more akin to observation, since Wallace was "researching" things that didn't exist. Of course, the book also includes research (no scare quotes) into lots of things that did and do exist. I suppose this would make his work postmodern in ways I hadn't even imagined before I read Andrew's post.

Andrew goes on to elaborate on his point that Wallace never quite gets over his skepticism as to the world he has created

And this type of thing occurs many times in the text: consider the phrase, "Goethe's well-known 'Bröckengespenst' phenomenon38" (88). If it's so well-known, why the hell does it need to be footnoted? This feels like Wallace simply can't decide how to be authoritative: does he want to be assholically authoritative ("well-known"), learnedly authoritative (using the German term in the first place), or helpfully authoritative (sticking in a footnote)? If the confusion is simply an attempt to undermine the idea of authority in the first place, then it needs to be decisive confusion: subversion can't be done lackadaisically, and self-subversion even less so.

I don't think this indecisiveness is the quite as purposeful as Andrew seems to believe. Rather, it seems to me to be a result of Wallace's self-consciousness, which I would say is one of the larger liabilities of his fiction (at least in Infinite Jest; at other points (for instance "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again) Wallace uses his self-consciousness to great comedic effect).

I also once saw Wallace claim in an interview that he wanted the book to have a conversational tone, as if someone was speaking to the reader, so that might also explain the "lackadaisical" element Andrew mentions here, as well as the superabundance of squishy words (e.g. sometimes, about, etc) that he discusses later in his post.

Infinite Summer

There's a website dedicated to reading Infinite Jest this summer. Lots of interesting material (e.g. How to Read Infinite Jest)

I, of course, am a huge, huge partisan of this book, so I hereby exhort you all to grab a copy of IJ and read it this summer.

I read Infinite Jest back in 2004, and it remains one of the most memorable reading experiences in the past 5 years. (There is actually a large amount of Jest-related material available on this blog, both from my own reading and that of other people who have read it and discussed it here.) It's one of those books that I hesitate going back to–because a second reading could hardly be as good as the memory of the first–even though in many ways I do want to read it again, to see what new thoughts I have about the book and to see how it has stood up to changes in the world of literature in the five years since I last read it.

There's another impediment to my return to Infinite Jest, which is simply the rest of Wallace's writing. I've certainly read a large amount of his non-Jest writing, but it seems somehow wrong to re-read Jest when so much of the writing from this author who is both hugely important and one of my personal favorites remains unread.

That is all to say, perhaps this summer you'll see some Oblivion– or Broom of the System-related posts up around here to help give you a little context for your reading of Wallace's masterpiece.

IJ Review

In honor of the Infinite Jest 10 year reissue, the TLS has given the book another look. It’s a good take.

For all its many branching offshoots, the structure of Infinite Jest is built on a narrative foundation that recalls James Joyce’s Ulysses, an ancestor text that is specifically evoked in Wallace’s use of the famous Joycean compound "scrotumtightening". Both texts have one foot in Hamlet, and both are organized around two narrative arcs that set a youthful prodigy who has problems with his father, next to an older man, who is less well educated but more humane than his son. In both books the author begins with the younger talent, but moves toward the older man as the story approaches its end. In Wallace’s novel, the Leopold Bloom figure is provided by Donald Gately, an enormous former burglar who is trying to lead an earnest life and recover from his addictions at a halfway house. Balanced against this story is that of the Stephen Dedalus figure, provided by Hal Incandenza, a teenage lexical and tennis prodigy who is descending into addiction even as Gately makes his escape. Between the cynicism of youth and the developing sincerity of the recovering addict, Wallace attempts to explore what he calls "the soul’s core systems", probing his characters’ sometimes nebulous sense of self.

This "reflect back on the book 10 years on" is the kind of thing I’d like to see more of. With book coverage these days, we get tons of short coverage right when a book is pubbed and the occasional mention in a longer survey-type article, usually when the author has a new book out. But we rarely get this sort of piece, where a significant book is reapproached after we’ve all had a number of years to take it in.

I wish there would be more of this. Literature is about an ongoing conversation, not a ton of short takes up front and then nothing. Seems like blogs are ideally suited to help fill this gap.

Infinite Jest, Digested: Part Two

Last time, I mentioned that the two main hurdles I had to
deal with in reading Infinite Jest were how to deal with the length and how to
deal with the endnotes. I yammered on about the length last time, but I forgot
to yammer about the endnotes. So here goes.*

Continue Reading

The Addiction of Infinite Jest

Barrett, whom we’ll be hearing more from on other books he reads in the future, is currently talking about Infinite Jest. In his first post on the book, he got into a little meta-discussion by mentioning a number of good sites with IJ criticism. I’ve visited several of those myself, and I think many other readers of this book have too, because IJ is a novel that leaves you with a number of dangling threads. Not dangling as in David Foster Wallace did a bad job of cleaning up after himself, but dangling as in purposely left unsolved to demonstrate the unrequited search for satisfaction that is IJ’s main theme.

For those who haven’t read it, IJ is largely about the culture of consumerism, where one more hit of entertainment is always desired. To critique it, DFW creates The Entertainment–a DVD (the book, written in 1996 before DVDs were common in the U.S., uses slightly different technology, but its pretty similar so I’ll just call it a DVD) with entertainment so compelling that anyone who sees it once is a goner–from that moment on, all they will want to do with the rest of their life is just watch The Entertainment over and over.

What is The Entertainment and why is it so addictive? Although IJ gives some very tantalizing hints, this is a question that remains largely unsolved. Like the narrative threads in the book, you can see an answer forming, but it remains indistinct enough that a number of competing theories all remain valid.

In IJ DFW draws pretty strong parallels between consumerism’s endless quest for satisfaction and the nature of addiction to alcohol and drugs. I think he leaves us with dangling threads because he wants us to feel the urge that drives addictions. If you liked IJ, then when you close that book and want more IJ, you are feeling the pangs of addiction. I certainly felt it. After I finished IJ, I needed to find resolution to the questions DFW leaves open, so I scoured the Internet for info and found lots and lots of competing explanations. (And I recommend all the sites Barrett listed in his post. There are some very smart essays and reads up there.) In fact, because I had become so addicted to reading IJ, and because these websites were the cure that helped me "get off" IJ, I nicknamed them Jestadone. (Which you can pronounce either like "methadone," or like "Jest-a-done.")

In other words, my reading of IJ left me instilled with the exact feeling that so many addicts and consumers in the book feel–that unquenchable desire for one more hit. If only DFW had written 200 more pages and given me some damn closure!

Although DFW’s way of getting me thinking and talking about his book isn’t common, I think IJ does what any good book should do: it gets you excited to talk about it. Now I know that there are many books out there that I’ve liked that haven’t really left me feeling like I wanted to talk about them. They’re good books, and I’m sure that many people out there would argue that they are "flawless," but I would disagree. I think that in order to be a complete success, a book needs to give you that desire to think about it beyond the page, and, if possible, to talk about it with others. IJ did that for me, and I’m glad that Barrett has chosen to blog about it, because I’m always up for another discussion of this book. So, even though this is his show, I’m going to be happy to jump in from time to time with comments of my own.

Infinite Jest, Digested: Part One

In one of my first posts last fall, I talked about Infinite Jest not as a work of literature—I hadn’t read it yet—but as an objet d’art, as a physical artifact in and of itself, a lapful of pages that was about to be reissued in paperback to celebrate its tenth anniversary.

Well now, these few months later, I have actually read the indomitable Jest, and I’m here with a report, a sort of reader’s response/diary of how I climbed the infinite Everest. In the spirit of open endings and fragmented narration and incomplete circles, I’ll break these posts up onto various themes or subjects, as not to go on to bloggingly long, though I will no doubt repeat myself horribly before I get good into the second post.

Continue Reading

Friday Column: Give A Book

In 1995 in The New York Review of Books, Brad Leithauser was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to adulate his favorite book ever in the pages of one of the widest-read and most respected literary periodicals in the nation.

Leithauser left little doubt as to the place this book held in his heart:

There are good books and there are great books and there may be a book that is something still more: it is the book of your life. If you’re quite lucky, you may at some point chance upon a novel which inspires so close a kinship that questions of evaluation (Is this book better than merely good? Is it some sort of classic?) become a niggling irrelevance. Luck has everything to do with it. For the sensation I’m describing has its roots in a poignant, tantalizing feeling that this marvelous new addition to your existence, this indelible Presence, has arrived by serendipity.

I dare to say that anyone who is reading this and had read long and closely enough knows exactly the sensation Leithauser describes. His description is lovely, but it is also superfluous–true bibliophiles know just what Leithauser means. I certainly do. From the moment I had read this far in Leithauser’s essay, I knew exactly which book I would devote this honor to.

So which book is the book of Leithauser’s life?

And the book of my own life? I remember vividly my initial encounter with it. I finished its last chapters one late afternoon in Rome, seated in an all-but-deserted café. Outside a storm had abruptly blown in and a chill autumn rain was lashing the streets, and I read as though furtively, hunched over the pages. I did this for two reasons. The light had turned dim. And I didn’t want anyone happening to glance my way to notice I was weeping.

The novel was Halldor Laxness’s Independent People.

This is all great, but what comes next is pure genius. How does Leithauser continue to pay homage to Independent People to this day?

Independent People is not hard to come by in the States. When it was published here, in 1946, it was a Book-of-the-Month Club Main Selection, and copies regularly turn up in usedbook stores. Provided the price is ten dollars or less, I snap them up whenever I come across them. They make an ideal present—though some explanation may be in order when, arriving at someone’s house for dinner, you hand your host not a bottle of wine but a dusty, almost fifty-year-old book, translated from Icelandic, about sheep farmers. At one point, I’d accumulated more than twenty copies; I rarely have on hand fewer than ten.

Ever since I read my own favorite book in the world, I’d had an idea, even an urge, to evangelize for it. For me, the book sustained a combination of stylistic pleasure, pure comedy, memorable characters that I loved to follow, intellectual elaboration, and plain old plot over an almost miraculously long duration. As long as the book was (and it is long), it still ended far too soon. It was the kind of book that actually inspired thoughts along the lines of "savor this, because you’ll only get to read it for the first time once."

There are books you respect, books that so impress you with their erudition that you go back through them a second and third time and find more and more there to the point that you work yourself into a frenzy. This book is great! But there are other books that on the very first pass through just seem to be wired into your brain. A second and third pass reveals even more, but you don’t really need them; that first time through was so overwhelming that it is the only proof you need of the book’s magnitude.

I’d enjoyed this book so thoroughly, and found its observations about life–especially life in America–so profound that it left me fired with a desire to exhort as many people as I could to read it too. Not for my own benefit, but for the book, for the author, most of all for the readers themselves, whom I believed would find so much to love in this book I loved so much.

I wanted to exhort, but how? I’m not the type of person who goes up to a person I somewhat know and just starts railing to them about books. I’m not even the kind of person who would usually do this, uninvited, to close friends.

That’s why Leithauser’s idea strikes me as ideal. I can simply pick this book up at usedbook stores–they usually have at least one copy on hand–and make stacks of them to give away as gifts. Leithauser’s admission that "some explanation may be in order" makes the perfect opportunity for me to spill my guts to the unsuspecting recipients.

I bring this up now because Christmastime is undoubtedly the height of my book-giving and -receiving for my year. I imagine that is probably is for a lot of you as well. It’s the one time of year that I feel correct in giving good books as gifts, even to people I wouldn’t normally think to give books to. This contrasts with the rest of the year, where I tend to be quite careful about giving books to people unless I’m absolutely sure they will end up reading them. I hate the idea of a book given for a birthday or some other occasion placed high up on a shelf and left to sit there forever.

This is why Leithauser’s idea so appeals to me: the audacity of sauntering in–apropos of nothing–and slapping a book into somebody’s hand (complete with explanation of how said book was the greatest reading experience of your life) might just be enough to get anyone to read your book. Imagine if someone came to your next party, gave you a copy of, say, White Noise, and explained that they had brought it to you because it is the greatest book they’ve ever read. That might carry more cache than even that paperback given you by your best friend for Christmas.

So, this Christmas, I’d like to pass along the idea that book-giving need not be a once-a-year occasion. Look deep into your own shelves and think about what’s your own favorite book ever and start giving it away. If you live in a moderate-sized city on up, you can probably even find all the copies you’ll ever need in your local usedbook store. If not, there’s always our two major online retailers, both of which tend to have a steady supply of cheap classics.

As for the book that I’ll give away from now on, readers of this blog should know it well. It is, of course, Infinite Jest.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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