Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time did it to me. It made me fall in love with fiction. I’d been an early reader, and a frequent reader, but when I discovered L’Engle’s Wrinkle in 5th grade there were sparks, complete with a speeding heart, sweaty palms and butterflies knocking around in my stomach until I get back to that engrossing book.
That long torrid affair with fiction came to a horrible halt when I started reading material online all day long for pay.
I am a blogger by trade. I’m a blogger who blogs about blogs for a living for a local television news station. Part of that job entails monitoring 300, 400, 500 blogs every day (I lost count.), so that I may recommend content written by locals to locals. I’m a human aggregator. I scan and skim and skip big chunks of text so that I can crank out 10, 20, sometimes 25 posts in a single day. I cannot read all the posts made by local bloggers in a single day. It would be impossible. That means I never get to the end of what Google Reader pipes in to me, and I start it all over again the following morning with more scanning, skipping, skimming until some post pegged with bullet points or strategically placed bolded text catches my attention enough to single it out for suggestion. Large, long, thoughtful posts don’t get read in full, so much as passed on to others to read simply due to the length.
I likely skim over a good 20,000 words a day. Lots of them register, but many do not. I’ve had to become a masterful scanner of reading material, a skill that is essential when monitoring a huge amount of content every day, but one that will utterly annihilate your ability to sit down and read an actual book. Infinite Jest is the first book I’ve taken on to read in a long, long time. Because my job requires a good eight hours a day of reading (scanning, whatever), I just don’t have the drive or stamina to come home and read some more. It’s usually “The Bachelor” or “Real Housewives” or “People Who Think They Can Dance” running around in my brain once I’ve clocked out for the day. But the reading I do for my work isn’t reading at all, not really, and so by diving into Infinite Jest after having avoided novels for so long I have slowly, and almost by accident, gotten my attention span back.
For someone who hasn’t read anything longer than a New Yorker article in a solid six months, IJ is an unmerciful beast to bring me back into the fiction fold. I began my Infinite Summer journey like an excited elementary student on her first day back to school in fall. I packed my enormous book in my backpack, along with a fresh steno notepad and capped pen, so that I could read on the bus or on the train or on my break at work. I was going to win at Infinite Summer! I was pumped! I was going to do this! But I learned very soon a few things: 1) You carry that book around on your back every day and you will need a spinal alignment. 2) People look at you funny when you read that tome in public. 3) Infinite Jest cannot be read in ten minute spurts on the back of a bumpy, crowded bus barreling down Mission Street. I was going to have to really commit to this book the way one commits to a college course or a part-time job or a new lover.
That’s when the magic happened. When I took the book to my room and closed the door and even lit some candles, because, dammit this was a date, part of me that was lost to internet reading peaked its head up. I was spending serious one-on-one time with a big, beautiful book, and when I really gave myself over to it, and fought the urge to skim and won, I knew IJ had become more than my latest reading project, it had became the rebirth of my much-missed attention span.
Infinite Jest takes focus. I cannot listen to music while reading this novel, nor can I take it in with television on in the background. I can’t skim parts and still get the gist. The text requires 100% participation on my part. It has become a meditation. I have to be present and mindful in order to fully ingest the words before me. I cannot click to open a new tab, to check to Twitter to see if anyone famous has died, or refresh D-Listed.40 It’s just me and the lavish landscape Wallace created.
“I am in here.”
I have chosen to care about this book, to give it a place in my life. In doing so I am rewarded with messages in IJ about the importance of being present. Of just breathing. Themes abound in IJ about focus, about choosing what it is that you pay attention to, and how crucial it is to do that with the utmost care. If only because our whole lives depend on it.
By virtue of being what it is, a dense, complicated, scattered work of immense volume, Infinite Jest enforces its own themes. Focus, presence of mind and conscious choice are all things thrust upon the reader when they enter into a contract to finish DFW’s IJ. Having wine before reading makes the trek a little too muddy. Reading with a clear mind, free of adulterants, will allow the book to bring you its own incredible high. There is keen insight embedded in nearly every page, but you have to be fully present to see them.
“Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticsm with great care.”
The non-linear (to say the least) structure, the constant change in voice, forced flipping, always flipping, to the back of the book for endnotes are elements that don’t allow you to get lost in a story. “You are reading a book,” you are often reminded. You are in here. You are not Cinderella at the ball or Hermione at Hogwarts, you are reading Infinite Jest. You may get caught up in the frenzy of Erdedy’s panicked wait for pot, but not for long. Soon you are reading Infinite Jest again.
It’s easy to see that Wallace had a difficult time with focus, what with the sprawling nature of his most famous novel. It’s almost as easy to see that he knew the vast importance of mental discipline and presence of mind, if you can manage to have some of that yourself. With Infinite Jest Wallace was able to let his mind roam in fantastic, spooling, brilliant ways, yet did so within the confines of a single book. Sure, it’s a really long book, but he was able to box his thoughts. And by offering that book to you he is giving you the same opportunity, the chance to see just how difficult but but ultimately freeing that can be.