voracious reader with a certain verbal attitude

Posts tagged infinite jest

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Anonymous asked: I'd like a book recommendation too: Something long and tragic and depressing. I want to spend a long time reading about people who are doomed.

Hi! I hate to lead with the obvious, but if you haven’t read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace yet, that’s a book that will take you a long time and most of the people in it are tragic and depressing (tho there are certainly some beautifully uplifting moments, as well). It took me just about two weeks of constant reading, and I would estimate I spent most of that time consumed by the book as well as worries about my own mental health. I blogged the whole experience, if you want to get a sense of the book that way.

I am also still haunted by Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes. Marlantes, himself a veteran of the Vietnam War, spent thirty years working on it, and it shows. The story has all the anger and frustration of the grunts on the ground as well as the tempered perspective that only time can grant. It is a remarkable achievement and, as it is about the Vietnam War, extraordinarily depressing. I consider it a modern classic.

For a true classic of tragedy and depression, you can’t do much better than Anna Karenina by dear old Leo Tolstoy. Trepidatious? I was too. But I found it as engrossing as any telenovela. Nobody does doomed lovers like the Russians. The translation I’ve linked to is practically a living organism. 

If by some chance you need something small enough for your bag and would like a short tragedy, I will recommend The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante. Few nervous breakdowns have been as spectacularly committed to the page. It’s excruciating. It’s a vicious delight.

This has been a #bookadvice post. I’m answering one #bookadvice question each day this month for reasons to be explained at a later date. Go ahead and post your own questions under the #bookadvice tag, or answer one. Or answer this one! 

Filed under bookadvice book advice books readers' advisory tumblarians infinite jest david foster wallace matterhorn karl marlantes anna karenina leo tolstoy the days of abandonment elena ferrante

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I’m not much for best-of lists. My memory is not good enough for them and I don’t find them very useful when other people write them, and so am too lazy to bother. I did, for the first time, keep a fairly accurate list of what I read this year. Was 367 books. I liked the vast majority of them, so it would feel wrong to only list ten or so, and to list more than that would defeat the purpose of a best-of list.

At least half of what I read this year came out before 2000. It was almost uniformly good (in contrast to the new stuff, which was more like 60/40). Which is another reason a best-of list would be unhelpful. You have undoubtedly already read many of my favorite reads from this year. I spend a lot of time bemoaning my youth and wishing I was sixty already, but one advantage to being young is that there are still piles of good books I haven’t had time to read yet.

Anyway, I will make one list, in honor of the year I decided not to be scared of long books anymore: My Top Five Books Over 500 Pages of 2010 (Even Though Only Two Came Out in 2010). These would all make the hypothetical best-of list. Do you think it’s that long books are more likely to be satisfying? Or do you think that one is more likely to want long books to be satisfying to justify the time one spent reading them, so they have an unfair advantage? Whatever, I loved all these books and feel unnaturally driven to proselytize them.

  1. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. If I couldn’t do this book justice in thirteen blog posts, I’m not going to manage to do so here. Just…read it if you haven’t already, okay?
  2. Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. Why is this book not getting the attention it deserves? I know it has gotten some attention, but I want it to have, like, WaterForElephantsEatPrayLoveTwilight-levels of attention. I don’t care that the book is so depressing that I couldn’t sleep properly for weeks. Everybody should read this book. Please, please.
  3. The Instructions by Adam Levin. Reviewed here.
  4. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. This book is crazy. I don’t want to spoil anything for anybody but let’s just say that knowing that this book has sold twenty million copies makes me secretly hopeful both for the future of this country. And also for my personal future, in which Scotsmen will finally get the hint that they are very much desired in this part of the world and emigrate en masse and call me Sassenach. If you have read it please come by the store soon so that we may freak out about the opium scene, which I am still wrapping my head around, months later.
  5. The Autobiography of Mark Twain by himself. I don’t care what Garrison Keillor has to say about it, this is a fun read. Excerpted in several parts starting here.

So there you go. If you’re looking for a great book that you won’t be able to travel or commute with and won’t want to hold for more than half an hour at a time because your arms will start to go numb, please consult this list.

(Oh, and a quick shout-out to Stoner by John Williams, which I, like a jerk, keep giving to people for presents because I am that girl, the one who foists books on you that SHE wants you to read, not that YOU want to read. Except that Stoner is so good that it has been met with a 100% approval rate from those receiving it. So there! Stoner: buy it for yourself today, or risk being unsurprised when I give it to you for your birthday.)

Filed under the instructions infinite jest matterhorn outlander mark twain books books books stoner

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Infinite Jest, day 13 (fin)

Pages: 876-981

Feelings toward the book: Not completely resolved but overwhelmingly positive

Days by which I beat my self-imposed goal for completing the book: 1

Level to which I am competitive: Higher than is probably healthy

Likelihood that this tendency is one of the reasons I liked Infinite Jest so much: Probable

Incredible word re-appropriation: embrasure (919)

And another: piaffer (965)


"It was basically either an ass or a cockroach. Never again the kid’s market as God is my witness." (880)

"The resentment, fear and self-pity are almost narcotizing." (895)

"Maybe the worst part of the cognitions involved the incredible volume of food I was going to have to consume over the rest of my life. Meal after meal, plus snacks. Day after day after day. Experiencing this food in toto. Just the thought of the meat alone." (897)

"It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe." (900)

"Facklemann claimed to have started a Log just to keep track of Kite’s attempted pickup lines—surefire lines like e.g. ‘You’re the second most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, the first most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen being former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher,’ and ‘If you came home with me I’m unusually confident that I could achieve an erection,’ and said that if Kite wasn’t still cherry at twenty-three and a half it was proof of some kind of divine-type grace." (925)

"A woman at U. Cal-Irvine had earned tenure with an essay arguing that the reason-versus-no-reason debate about what was unentertaining in Himself’s work illuminated the central conundra of millennial apres-garde film, most of which, in the teleputer age of home-only entertainment, involved the question of why so much aesthetically ambitious film was so boring and why so much shitty reductive commercial entertainment was so much fun." (947)

"A weird isolated memory of summertime gnats knitting the air above the shaggy animal-head of a neighbor’s topiary hedge." (950)

"I could be the faultless victim of a freak accident and be knocked from the game while still on the ascendant. Becoming the object of compassionate sorrow rather than disappointed sorrow." (955)

More TK, I am sure.

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Infinite Jest, day 12

Pages: 769-876

Feelings toward book: It’s all starting to make sense (I think)

One of the best invented words in the book so far: actaeonizing (from the myth of Actaeon)

Word I’m surprised is not in wider use: senescence

Word being thrown about enough in odd situations that I’ve noticed it a few times now, which is a little irritating, and in combination with a lot of racist thoughts in the book makes me think that it’s a tricky thing to write a long book in close third person when most of your main characters are racist/misogynist in some way, and it’s really only the end notes that save the whole thing, and I hope someone smarter than me has already explored these issues and written about them somewhere: rape

A phrase that doesn’t make sense but is instantly likable: “like hamsters on wheat” (836)

A word that appears misspelled, and probably is, but then there are two entries on Urban Dictionary for it: orchasm


"Hang me upside-down and fuck me in both ears. You pulled yourself out of a clinical depression by bring a freaking hero.” (778)

"The kid’s hair was starting to melt in the heat of Pat’s office and drip and settle on his head like a slashed tire, causing that his face got bigger." (787)

"He attempted to dissuade her from accepting a scholarship to a Boston University whose Film and Film-Cartridge Studies Program was, he apparently maintained, full of quote Nasty Pootem Wooky Bam-Bams, unquote, whatever family-code pejorative this signified." (792)

"He still has this intractable habit of making a move like he’s straightening a bow tie before he enters a strange room." (799)

"His last resort: entertainment. Make something so bloody compelling it would reverse thrust on a young self’s fall into the womb of solipsism, anhedonia, death in life." (839)

"He was the sort of person who equated incredibly careful record-keeping with control. In other words he was by nature a turd-counter. Gately had realized this at a very young age, and that it was bullshit and maybe crazy." (841)

"Death is explaining that Death happens over and over, you have many lives, and at the end of each one (meaning life) is a woman who kills you and releases you into the next life. Gately can’t quite make out if it’s like a monologue or if he’s asking questions and she’s responding in a Q/A deal. Death says that this certain woman that kills you is always your next life’s mother. This is how it works: didn’t he know?" (850)

"Feeling the edge of every second that went by. Taking it a second at a time. Drawing the time in around him real tight." (859)

"There’s something elementally horrific about waking before dawn." (865)

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Infinite Jest, day 11

Pages: 711-769

Feelings toward book: Frustrated that I didn’t have more time to read last night

A good word for a Friday: otiose

Again: it’s hard in a short post like this to highlight the strength of the book, which is in the artful tension built within scenes and also between them, and in exchanges of dialogue that out of context are powerless, but which in the book are captivating


"His heart sounded like a shoe in the Ennet House basement’s dryer. His heart was beating that loud." (716)

"Lenz straightened the mustache with one finger and gave a tiny little Yellow-Brick-Road stutter-skip of pure controlling glee, his adrenaline invisible for all to see." (719)

"Lenz walked by with urban dignity, like he both saw them and didn’t." (729)

"Never trust a man on the subject of his own parents. As tall and basso as a man might be on the outside, he nevertheless sees his parents from the perspective of a tiny child, still, and will always. And the unhappier his childhood was, the more arrested will be his perspective on it." (738)

"Though it’s not as if you could trust parents on the subject of their memory of their children either." (739)

"The stairwells smell like the cement they’re made of." (757)

“‘My point here is that certain types of persons are terrified even to poke a big toe into genuinely felt regret or sadness, or to get angry. This means they are afraid to live. They are imprisoned in something, I think. Frozen inside, emotionally. Why is this. No one knows, Love-o.’” (766)

"It usually seems like plagiarists aren’t lazy so much as kind of navigationally insecure." (1061, endnote 304)

Filed under infinite jest david foster wallace

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Infinite Jest, day 10

Pages: 620-711

Feelings toward book: Running out of ways to say OMG GUYS I LOVE IT over here

Relevant to the modern-day Internet: “Nobody but Ludditic granola-crunching freaks would call bad what no one can imagine being without.” (620)

Book shout-out: Make Way For Duckings by Robert McCloskey (WHAT WHAT) (best picture book EVER y’all) (623)

Word that sounds pretty but is actually super gross: chyme (624)

Section I will not be quoting, because it is long and grim, but which is the clearest description of clinical depression I’ve ever encountered (and frankly, ever hope to encounter): pages 695-696, starting with “It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radial and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self’s most elementary levels…”

Perhaps the most heart-breaking sentence in the book: “Some cases of depression are beyond human aid.” (697)

More quotes:

"It’s always the same sort of grim windy Northeast November day where if you were at home you’d be eating earth-tone soups in a warm kitchen, listening to the wind and glad of home and hearth." (622)

"Last week a grounds-crew lawnmower sitting clean and silent and somehow menacing in the middle of the dawn kitchen gave Mrs. Clarke the fantods and resulted in Eggplant Parmesan for two suppers in a row, which sent shock waves." (632)

"John Wayne gives him not a look." (633)

"Bold nerveless guys on the court who go slack and pale at the thought of approaching a female in any social context. Certain things not only can’t be taught but can be retarded by other stuff that can be taught." (635)

"In contrast with the violence and transpercant puncturing of the sunset, the dawn sun seemed slowly exhaled from the more rounded salience of the Mountains of Rincon, its heat a moister heat and the light the vague red of a type of fond sentiment…” (642)

"Sometimes it’s hard to believe the sun’s the same sun over all different parts of the planet." (655)

"Hal notes that girls always seem to slip out of their shoes when they assume any kind of spectatorial posture." (703)

Filed under infinite jest david foster wallace

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Infinite Jest, day 9

Pages: 543-619

Feelings toward book: Obsessive; repeated astonishment

Did you know that: there is an Infinite Jest wiki? (Of course there is!)

Character on whom I currently have the biggest crush: Mike Pemulis

What this probably says about my mental health: Nothing good

Something I would like someone to say to me in casual conversation someday with the necessary changes made: “Mike Pemulis, you are in motion a prince and in repose a sage.” (574)

Best word of the section: etiology (585)

The dominant strength of the middle of this book is definitely: long, multi-page scenes that are inevitably going to end in disaster and which if acted out would only take a few minutes, but which take fifteen minutes to read, and cause an incredible feeling of tension I had only ever experienced in real life before, and never in a book


"He looked less insolent than just extremely poorly dressed, really." (551)

"A loose music played in his head." (551)

"The night-noises of the metro night: harbor-wind skirling on angled cement, the shush and sheen on overpass traffic, TPs’ laughter in interior rooms, the yowl of unresolved cat-life. Horns blatting off in the harbor. Receding sirens. Confused inland gulls’ cries. Broken glass from far away. Car horns in gridlock, arguments in languages, more broken glass, running shoes, a woman’s either laugh or scream from who can tell how far, coming off the grid. Dogs defending whatever dog-yards they pass by, the sounds of chains and risen hackles." (556)

"Rarely a feeling of outright unalloyed sadness as such, afterward—-just an abrupt loss of hope." (596)

"Lenz’s voice is nonstop—-he’s alternately inviting the guy to perform impossible acts and advancing baroque arguments for how whatever they think he did there’s no way he was even in the same area code as whatever happened that they think he did." (609)

"It’s always that everything always speeds up and slows down both." (612)

Filed under infinite jest david foster wallace

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Infinite Jest, day 7

Pages: 330-508

Feelings toward book: Second-stage falling in love (past first-stage, where you just want to suck on someone’s face all the time and sleep three hours a night and forget to eat; more like when you find yourself buying an extra sandwich and remembering to ask them to hold the tomatoes and scribbling short lines of poetry on the napkin)

Another two phrases to add to the arsenal: “the very breath and bread” (338); “faute-de-mieux” (403)

And a word, as well: mafficking (429)

If/when I leave New York, the reason why: “sly disingenuous manipulative psuedo-sincerity” (369)

Weird moment: The section titled “WINTER, B.S. 1963, SEPULVEDA CA” seemed weirdly familiar from the get-go, and then I realized that I had read it before in a writing class, in some collection of short stories, where it was presented as a standalone story, as which it functions very well. But it functions even better in context.


"Everyone’s scooping up spent warheads and totally unrealistically refiring them. The fences shudder and sing as balls rain against them." (340)

"There’s a noise like the historical sum of all cafeteria accidents everywhere." (342)

"It’s all optional; do it or die." (357)

"Why is the truth usually not just un- but anti-interesting?" (358)

"Johnny Gentle, the first U.S. President ever to swing his microphone around by the cord during his Inauguration speech." (382)

"His wrists are so thin he wears his watch halfway up his forearm, which looks sort of gladiatorial." (388)

"Do not underestimate objects! Lyle says he finds it impossible to overstress this: do not underestimate objects.” (394)

"The empty expanse they both faced off the shelf sucked all resonance, causing every sound to sound self-enclosed and every utterance to seem flatly soft and somehow overintimate, almost post-coital. The sounds of things said beneath blankets, winter beating at the log walls." (420)

"The United States: a community of sacred individuals which reveres the sacredness of the individual choice." (424)

"He screens input with a fucking vengence the whole time." (435)

"And his dreams late that night, after the Braintree/Bob Death Commitment, seem to set him under a sort of sea, at terrific depths, the water all around him silent and dim and the same temperature he is." (449)

"Probably the less said about wind sprints the better." (455)

"In that world is joy because there is shelter of something else, of purpose past sluggardly self and complaints about uncomfort.” (459)

”’Now,’ Roy said, extracting his free hand and pointing to the vestry floor with a stabbing gesture, ‘now,’ he said, ‘you gone risk vulnerability and discomfort and hug my ass or do I gone fucking rip your head off and shit down your neck?’” (506)

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Infinite Jest, day 6

Pages read: 317-330

Reason I stopped in the middle of a great section: got up to get water, cat fell asleep on open book, tried to wait her out, fell asleep with glasses still on

Comment I made to myself on the side of a page: does David Foster Wallace’s writing style seem so familiar to me because his voice is an easy one to get used to, or because his writing had a profound effect on many people whose Internet writing I read? Especially in sections about E.T.A., I’m struck by the similarities to what I call “High Internet” (as opposed to “Low Internet”) speech. More TK on this, I think.

Do I wish Eschaton was a real game and that I had played it in high school: One thousand times yes


"Marathe wondered why the presence of Americans could always make him feel vaguely ashamed after saying things he believed." (318)

"So they play, logically, cautiously, so earnest and deliberate in their calculations they appear thoroughly and queerly adult, almost Talmudic, from a distance." (327)

Filed under david foster wallace infinite jest cats hate when you read too much