Is It Okay to Stop Reading?

InfiniteJestAfter my first two-hundred pages of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, I wrote the following anticipatory review: “I’ve read better books, I’ve read worse books, but I’ve never read anything like it, which is unfortunate since, had I read anything like it—preferably something much shorter—someone could have said, ‘Infinite Jest: it’s like that book, X,’ which would have saved me from all that lost time.”

Not only does the novel have a famously high page count, the pages themselves are large and dense. If typeset like a traditional novel, I suspect Jest would pass the 1300 page mark. In other words, Old Testament length. Of course, the Old Testament has more variety: poetry, philosophy, narrative, etc. Jest feels like a Tanakh comprised of Chronicles and Kings and Ecclesiastes and an extra helping of those publisher-trying-to-be-friendly notes and annotations.

My father-in-law saw me reading it and noted, “That’s a big book.” To which I responded, “Yeah, I’m 200 pages in and still don’t see a plot.” Since then, whenever I see my father-in-law, his question becomes, “Find the plot yet?” My answer is always “nope.” Somewhere around page 310, the hints of a plot showed, but this was diffused by the 21-page chapter on “Eschaton,” something like Quidditch for genius kids nostalgic for the Cold War.

I teach English classes—mostly composition, but some literature—with a primary interest in American Lit. I feel like it’s my responsibility to conquer this beast (note the last post on “Required Reading“). But I sure wish it were more enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong; there are moments. I like Wallace’s writing, usually, and am a fan of his non-fiction. I want to like Infinite Jest. But I think Wallace is indulgent and excessive and his prose is an endless stream of clever and remarkably crafted sentences, some lasting a whole, unindented page. The effect is something like an eighty-hour train ride between Boston and Tucson eating expensive cheeses and listening to a loop of Frank Zappa music while watching The Royal Tenenbaums and season four of Arrested Development. The first three or four hours are great….

I’m now in that place of trying to figure out what’s more courageous: finishing the book or putting it down. I try stopping, but then get compelled to shovel in another ten pages—only to think, “I could be reading something else.” I can’t quite stop and am not sure, yet, that I want to. But it’s getting close.

What about you? Is there a book that you forced yourself to read or one that you just said, “Nope. Not reading it,” and walked away without regret?


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