Top 10 Books of 2004: #1

#1 — Infinite Jest — David Foster Wallace

This cannot be much of a surprise for anyone who has paid attention to this blog during October and November. During those months, I was reading Infinite Jest and often posting wildly positive remarks about the book on this blog. Quite simply, rarely am I so blown away by a book.

At a time when every new book is billed as profound, earthshattering, magical, and uproarious, Infinite Jest actually is. It’s the rare book that actually lives up to its extraordinarily hyperbolic marketing hype. Perhaps tellingly, marketing hype is central to the Infinite Jest’s structure: one of the (many) questions Infinite Jest tackles is Where is our hyper-marketed culture headed?

It’s a question which Wallace answers in a typically precise but satirically unrealistic way. For instance, Infinite Jest is set just a few years into the future (roughly 2008) and Wallace projects a vision of network TV that dies not from a lack of successful advertising, but from exactly the opposite: in the future, advertising is so good at instilling fear and scaring people into buying products that they can’t stand to watch network TV any longer because the commercials are so horrifying.

Clearly this alternate future is a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s a credit to Wallace that it comes off as not only conceivable, but somewhat sympathetic. Sure, the networks are rightly derided for their shortsightedness, but Wallace doesn’t simply mock them. His account of the network’s decline feels more like the kind of inevitability that’s tragic–it’s not really anyone’s fault, it’s just the place where a bad system is headed and people are just doing what makes sense under the logic of the system. No one is really guilty, which makes their pain tragic.

Wallace puts the TV networks, and most of his characters, through lots of this kind of tragic pain and suffering, but these portrayals are never without empathy. Although Wallace is quite justifiably discontented with the state of society and although many of his characters are worthy of scorn, Wallace resists the urge to criticize without understanding. He wants to do more than complain, he wants to know why his characters are the way they are.

One of the things Infinite Jest has been widely praised for is the way Wallace explores and inhabits the unique mental vernaculars of many of his characters. Wallace does this because he wants to empathize with these characters–he wants to know how they think so he can understand why they are such imperfect people. In Wallace’s book, understanding a person’s personal language is key to understanding that person. And if anything, Wallace understanding even more than he wants irony and satire. Wallace’s goal with Infinite Jest is to move forward, to not simply retread the same steps of irony and cynicism that Pynchon and Gaddis have taken, but rather acknowledge the contribution these authors have made by taking the styles they pioneered to new places.

It is because of this deep willingness to move forward that I believe Infinite Jest is a hopeful book. Wallace paints a very dark picture of people and society and it’s clear that he’s holding no punches in giving comtemporary America its due. But the fact remains that Wallace clearly wants to know America from the inside; he wants to understand why things are this way. Wallace is empathizing because it’s only after you understand a problem that you can begin to solve it.

And so, Infinite Jest’s bleak and uncompromising feel only makes it more worth reading. It’s a book that exhibits the kind of humility and genuine curiosity that more people, in this age of hype and approximation, should reach toward. It’s a book that suggests answers by describing the questions so thoroughly that we can begain to see what the answers are. It’s a difficult, long, complex read that, for as much acclaim as it has received, has not been read nearly widely enough.

Top Ten:
#2 — Underworld — Don DeLillo
#3 — Speak, Memory — Vladimir Nabokov
#4 — The Octopus — Frank Norris
#5 — The King of California — Mark Arax, Rick Wartzman
#6 — The Corrections — Jonathan Franzen
#7 — City of Glass — Paul Auster
#8 — Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years — Brian Boyd
#9 — Rise of the Creative Class — Richard Florida
#10 — Madeline is Sleeping — Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
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Bravo on your list and commentaries. A few of these titles have been on my “read relatively soon” list (esp, Underworld) , and your discussion of it has only increased my resolve to get to them.
BTW, yesterday I came across a free audio of Richard Florida here .
I so rarely read books by living writers, (although I enjoy it whenever I do).
I recently bought an ebook reader a few weeks ago for $99 and have been downloading free stuff like crazy. (Read a review of it here –and btw, that screenshot of the screen is misleading; it’s backlit and is perfectly readable). Last week I downloaded hundreds of books for free by pre-1923 authors on blackmask.com specifically for ebook reading. I had been toying with the idea of downloading Octopus last week; now that you mentioned it, I will certainly download it. (Looking at the blackmask.com ebooks has opened up a new world to me).
I had read DFW’s early stuff (he won a Playboy fiction award when I was in grad school studying creative writing). But his longer stuff seemed not particularly tempting. But I’ll try to get around to it.
The two literary highlights of this year for me were Pnin and Lucian’s Satires (a funny series of philosophical sketches). Curiously, I haven’t found much fiction of interest on the web except perhaps for Selena Jardine’s erotic shorts . My current project is a literary ezine that hopefully will promote web-only fiction and do reviews of free ebooks both old and new–look for that next year.
Anyway, I hope that within a year or so I will have read one title from your list, and maybe 2 within 3 years. Oh, yes, and I need to fit Recognitions somewhere.

Oh, silly me, I forgot Ghost stories by Lafcadio Hearn. Ghost stories as if written by borges.

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Hi Robert, where did you buy an ereader for $99? The irex iliad is 649 euros here in holland. I want an ereader but i’m not a millionaire.

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