John Green: Why I’m Behind

08.21.09 | 22 Comments

John Green is the Michael L. Printz Award-winning author of Paper Towns, Looking for Alaska, and An Abundance of Katherines. He is also the co-creator (with his brother, Hank) of the popular vlogbrothers channel on youtube, which spawned the nerdfighter community, a tight-knit group of a hundred thousand nerds who use the internet to celebrate intellectualism and nerd culture.

Okay, so full disclosure: I am behind. (I’m only on page 350.)

I first read Infinite Jest in the summer of 1996, the summer after my freshman year of college. I had a beautiful first edition80 that I’d bought entirely because of a review in Time Magazine. (Off-topic, but remember magazines?) I lived that summer with three friends from high school and a juvenile pet squirrel named Trippy in a two-bedroom apartment in Birmingham, Alabama. We slept on these four full-sized mattresses we had kind of half-stolen from our friend’s dad, who owned a Days Inn.

My memories of that summer:

  1. The squirrel died. I came home from work one day, and the squirrel was dead in its cage, and I knew I had to tell my roommate Todd, who was particularly attached to Trippy and who was also reading IJ. I When he came home that day, I said, “I think Lenz got a hold of Trippy,” which in the end was, like, way too casual a way of telling Todd that his squirrel had died.
  2. I spent a lot of time lying on the bare Days Inn mattress, an unzipped sleeping bag over me, my forearms aching from the size of the book.

This time around, reading Infinite Jest has been an exercise in delighted confusion. But for me, in 1996, all reading was a matter of delighted confusion, and if I didn’t understand something, I just kept reading. Of course, I had no idea what was happening in the book.81 All I knew was that I liked Hal, and that I liked mmmyellow, and that even though it was horrible and all I kinda wished I was good at tennis.

When I finished the book, I immediately flipped to the first page and started reading again. For me, that summer, IJ achieved its craziest ambition: It became my Entertainment.

When I got back to school that Fall, one of the first things I did was get on the Internet, which was then capitalized, to find out what other people who’d read IJ had thought of it, whereupon I learned that even though I’d read IJ three times in three months, I’d had absolutely no idea what the book was about and had totally misunderstood everything. So it has been nice to read it with y’all this time around, because it keeps me on track.

I write novels for teenagers now—such books are colloquially called “Young Adult books” or just YA—and whenever I’ve had about two beers and find myself with other YA authors, I always start in on this soliloquy about how the contemporary young adult novel was not invented by J. D. Salinger or Judy Blume or Robert Cormier but by David Foster Wallace, whose ETA scenes more closely resemble what most YA writers are after. Like, for one thing, the best contemporary young adult fiction moves effortlessly between high and low culture in that way that only teenagers and David Foster Wallace can. I mean, my favorite books when I was eighteen were IJ and The Babysitters’ Club #43: Claudia’s Sad Goodbye.82 DFW proved that one way to bring readers to complex ideas is to utilize the sentence structures they hear every day; YA fiction has been trying to do this ever since.

Also, there’s the whole thing of treating teenagers as intellectually capable and genuinely funny people, which IJ did not invent but did master. Plus, YA novels on average are more likely to use footnotes than novels for adults.83 It’s actually pretty stunning how massively so many YA writers (I mean, me especially, but also other people) have ripped off ETA and Pemulis and Hal, how deeply DFW has shaped our understanding of what it means to be smart and talented and scared and 17.

So now, 13 years after first reading the book, I find myself treasuring the ETA scenes more than I did when I was of the age when I should have been treasuring them. Any book worth its salt has any many readings as it does readers. My reading has been slow going because it is such an awful pleasure to be in the shadow of my 18-year-old self, that skinny kid who was learning that unprecedented intellectual feats were not resigned to history.

But this makes it sound like reading IJ has been some rosy-fogged visit to the past. What I’m savoring so much, I think, is not remembering the me who first read the words, but … well, here is the truth: It is the lamest thing in the world to feel like you are alone and then to read a story that makes you feel unalone. Great books like IJ can and do accomplish so much more than this small trick of direct identification, but even so: For me to read a book that so expertly articulated the obsession and narcissism and sadness of the glass eye turned in on itself kind of made my life that summer and moving forward more bearable.

That was no small gift to me at the time—and it is no small gift this time, either.