A Supposedly Fun Blog

June 29, 2009

Foreworded is Forearmed

Filed under: Uncategorized — Julian Sanchez @ 5:09 pm

by Julian Sanchez

A word about the foreword before I join my cobloggers in the novel proper. When Infinite Jest was first published, I was a high-school student working as a part time clerk in a crappy suburban bookstore. The sort of place where the “Philosophy” section consisted of a dusty copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra and 50 books about angels. My duties consisted primarily of nursing a crush on the pixie-cute assistant manager and suppressing the urge to cringe when, as happened almost daily, leathery middle-aged women came in to purchase copies of The Rules for their tween daughters. But I’d also ring up quite a few copies of Infinite Jest, a national bestseller prominently displayed in the window and in blue-sky rows along the back wall. That fat hardcover came to symbolize “serious contemporary literary fiction,” the sort of book that, once I headed off to college, would spur intense café conversations with English majors who (in my imagination) looked suspiciously like that assistant manager. What’s odd, in retrospect, is that I realize I never had the slightest idea what the book was actually about—it existed as an almost totally abstract Serious Novel, not as a story about anything in particular. Needless to say, I never did get around to reading it.

All this came rushing back as I flipped through Dave Eggers foreword, which seems to be addressed to a reader who’s purchased the book, and is about to stick it on a shelf, abandoned a dozen pages in. Oddly, nothing in the foreword gives any inkling of what the book might be about. Instead, Eggers makes an unconvincing attempt to persuade the buyer-who-might-become-a-reader that it’s not quite as difficult as all that. In any event, he promises—quite literally—that reading Infinite Jest will make you a better person, that you might even have a duty to read it. I couldn’t help but think of the memorable introduction to Robert Nozick’s Philosophical Explanations:

I, too, seek an unreadable book: urgent thoughts to grapple with in agitation and excitement, revelations to be transformed by or to transform, a book incapable of being read straight throuhg, a book, even, to bring reading to stop.

Contra Eggers’ avowed intent, I found myself tempted to put the thing down right there, letting the book persist as a pure archetype of the Serious Novel. Fortunately, there’s always the impenetrable Finnegans Wake to hold down that role, so I’ve leapt in to discover what is, thus far, a lowercase good book—a fun read, even—not at all like eating one’s broccoli because it’s Good For You.  I mean, playing basketball can be a tough workout, and good exercise, but mostly people do it because it’s, you know, fun. And, so far, so is Infinite Jest. It seems an awful shame to lose sight of that amidst the reverence.


  1. I truly believe that reading Infinite Jest really will make a reader a better person. I’ve read it two and a half times. (The first half attempt came when I accidentally left my copy across the country from where I lived, and didn’t get it back in time to remember where I was.) I love it with an almost embarrassed enthusiasm, and there are passages that are guaranteed to make me cry every time I read them.

    But, not only is it insightful and true in a deeply beautiful way, it’s also hilarious. It’s one of the funniest, if saddest, books I’ve ever read.

    I am so excited that some of my favorite writers are undertaking this project, and will try not to be too irritating with my comments.

    Comment by Dan Summers — June 29, 2009 @ 6:53 pm | Reply

  2. I have now read a number of reflections on books that Changed My Way of Thinking Profoundly, Permanently and for the Better. Just about everyone remembers, along with the CMWoTPPaftB, a fair amount of sweat around the brow. I’m no different in that respect — all my favorite reads were tough reads. In this case, I am not looking back but up, since I just bought an electronic copy for the Kindle, and have read only Eggers’ intro and the first few pages. Ironically,[1] I was looking for a long, smooth read, since I’ve found that the Kindle is best read against a steady rhythm of “Next Page.” Oh, well.

    [1] and not in the Alanis Morissette sense.

    Comment by jre — June 29, 2009 @ 7:29 pm | Reply

  3. Nice post, although even though I agree with some of your points, I nevertheless found the Eggers foreword to be warm and inviting. I admit he does have a divisive familiarity to a lot of his writing. I like it, and I think some of the reverence is a bit winking. I have many reader friends who cringe at the name. (I remember once, in high school, I went to the local Borders to seek out the new-in-paperback “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” only to be sniped at by a very ironic salesperson, who when I asked if they carried it told me “ah yes. Well, I found it to be neither.”)

    Finnegan’s Wake seems more like the Platonic form of erudition rather than an actual, physical book. Christ, I’m probably more scared of it than I am of every other “difficult” novel I’ve heard of, combined.

    Comment by Ben — June 29, 2009 @ 8:01 pm | Reply

  4. I read about a page of Eggers reassuring me the book wouldn’t be hard, before I reassured myself reading Eggers would be, and moved onto the rest of the book.

    Comment by Diana — June 30, 2009 @ 7:37 pm | Reply

  5. I am actually not such a huge fan of Infinite Jest. But: It changed the way I think and write, and reading it was not so much dutiful as rollicking fun. The beginning is hard to get through, but the rest flies by. I think I read it in about a week straight back in high school, skipping nearly all my classes and hefting it with me when I couldn’t. Duty is not at all the right way to approach this book.

    Comment by Nx — July 1, 2009 @ 10:20 pm | Reply

  6. It’s hard to find knowledgeable people in this particular topic, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about!

    Comment by Camasa galbena barbati — September 18, 2014 @ 5:14 pm | Reply

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