Filed under: Story Sundays | Tags: backbone, david foster wallace, lit, reading, short stories, story sundays
Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.
If I were telling someone where to start with David Foster Wallace, I’d recommend his essays over his short stories, which I find pretty hit-or-miss. That’s why I haven’t written about him for Story Sundays before today – I’m so incapable of mustering enthusiasm for his stories that it seems wrong to recommend works I find intriguing but not satisfying.
<a href="http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2011/03/07/110307fi_fiction_wallace#ixzz1ULuTN1w4" target="_blank"Backbone" was published in The New Yorker back in March, though, and ever since I read it I’ve been debating putting it up here. So much of the story’s odd imagery, with a boy whose “goal was to be able to press his lips to every square inch of his own body”, is eerie and unforgettable. The story has the asides, the sometimes playful use of jargon, that is typical of Wallace’s work, but these elements never overshadow the central image of the boy contorting his body and slowly making his body entirely accessible to himself.
Filed under: Classic Fiction, Ways of Reading | Tags: ada, book, books, david foster wallace, difficult books, infinite jest, literature, magic mountain, meme, thomas mann, vladimir nabokov
Like Greg at New Dork Review of Books, Infinite Jest has the honor of being one of the most difficult literary books I’ve ever read. No question, this is in large part due to the book itself; I love David Foster Wallace, his essays and stories, but keeping track of multiple plots (or even one plot) has never been one of my strong points. Wallace’s prose is labyrinthine, and although there were many sections of the book I found hilarious (a lot of them taking place in the halfway house), I couldn’t keep track of it all.
And like Ingrid at The Blue Bookcase, I’ve found Mann a tough read as well. I read The Magic Mountain over the summer before leaving for Peace Corps (I actually finished it in the car as my parents drove me to my “staging” in Washington, D.C.) and it was often slow going. This may sound babyish, but as with Infinite Jest, one of my sticking points with The Magic Mountain was that the font was very small. And the book, about Hans Castorp’s visit to his cousin Joachim in a sanatorium, which ends up as a seven-year stay of his own, is very much about perceptions of time, and the book and characters all expound at length on this and other issues, which (please don’t judge me, please don’t judge me) sometimes pushed me towards sleep.
Both Infinite Jest and The Magic Mountain are what I would label “important books,” which is the vague definition I usually apply to books I think I should read (War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, Gravity’s Rainbow, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon) and will probably one day get around to reading. And both books are on the ever-lengthening list of books I plan to reread, because I know there are things in them that I missed. What I find sometimes exciting and sometimes frustrating about “difficult” books is that I head into them knowing I will need to reread. Some books that were initially difficult, like Ada, or Ardor, have opened themselves up to me after a few reads, so that what was initially a baffling collection of sometimes beautiful sentences is now the only book I cannot imagine living without, the book I’m going to be rereading every year or two for the rest of my life.
And these two books, I hope that’s what will happen with them, but at this point it’s hard to tell. My copy of The Magic Mountain is back in New Jersey, and I don’t plan to reread it until I can hold that copy and see what sentences I underlined, what notes I made in the margins. My copy of Infinite Jest is in the same place…or, well, I don’t know exactly where it is since my parents have moved, but it must be in a storage container somewhere in the state.
This brings me to a point, or a halfway point, that I meant to get to earlier in the post when I made some lame statement about how the font in these two books was too small. That is only partly true (though the footnotes in Infinite Jest often left me so dazed that I couldn’t read anything for the rest of the day after an hour reading them), but I do wonder how much the form of a book influences our reading experience. My reading of Infinite Jest became progressively less satisfying as I went along, in large part because I shifted from reading a hard copy in the states to reading on my kindle here in Macedonia. And maybe the kindle lets you “bookmark” and “underline” pages, but I couldn’t flip back and forth the way I needed to to remind myself of who certain characters were, or what had happened the last time they had appeared. When I reached the end of the book I couldn’t do what I really wanted to, which was to flip back to the start of the book and try to get a better sense of how it all linked together.
Some books are inherently difficult to read, sure, but I think the form in which you read them can also make a difference. My youthful fondness for Dover thrift editions has given way to a desire for wider margins and larger fonts, because I’ve found that for me, those things impact my reading experience. I have a hard time enjoying a book if my eyes don’t find a certain amount of blank space (an invitation to write some always insightful marginal notes, such as “????”) on the page.