Blurry Edges and Leaky Containers
I recently purchased David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest. I’ve been a fan of Wallace’s writing for a few years, mostly his non-fiction essays1 yet up until now, I didn’t have the courage to take the plunge into his magnum opus. Infinite Jest is a big book—coming in at 1104 pages, the paperback is almost two-inches thick. According to Amazon, it weighs two and a half pounds.
A book of that size commands attention—both mentally and physically. It has a mass and a weight. It takes up precious space on my bookshelf. My bookmark taunts me, always reminding me how much farther I still have to read. It’s intimidating. But it’s also not unapproachable.
And when I do finally finish, there’s a feeling of accomplishment. That space on my shelf now serves as an award of sorts, a medal of honor reserved for those who complete these two and half pounds of words. The bookmark comes out knowing I have read it all. It’s finished.
“Every new book I read comes to be a part of that overall and unitary book that is the sum of my readings. This does not come about without some effort: to compose that general book, each individual book must be transformed, enter into a relationship with the other books I have read previously, become their corollary or development or confutation or gloss or reference text.”
—Italo Calvino, If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler
I’m moving to Brooklyn next week so my current apartment is in various states of disarray—the living room is empty save for a few boxes; the kitchen is cleaned and organized, each utensil and gadget categorized and placed in its respective box to make the move easier; the bedroom looks sparse, every surfaced washed of its life. Every surface except for the bookshelf.
I’ve been saving the bookshelf for last. If it wasn’t for my collection of books, I wouldn’t have much to pack at all. Aside of general living expenses, most of my money goes towards books. When I moved to New York a year ago, I had to decide what I could bring with me to my new, smaller apartment. My books automatically made the cut. I wanted to be near them, surrounded by them.
And now it’s time to pack them again to move across the river.
A fantastic piece Leon Wieseltier on the the book as an object, libraries, and reading. One of my favorite parts:
There is something inhuman about the pristinity of digital publication. It lacks fingerprints. But the copy of a book that is on my shelf is my copy. It is unlike any other copy, it has been individuated; and even those books that I have not yet opened—unread books are an essential element of a library—were acquired for the further cultivation of a particular admixture of interests and beliefs, and every one of them will have its hour.
I was thinking about this on my way home last week. I’ve been reading The New Yorker on the my train rides to and from work and as I turned the page, I noticed my sweaty finger smudged the ink on the page, dirtying my hand. “That doesn’t happen when I read on my iPad,” I thought, “Sometimes print is still better.”
Peter Mendelsund adds his own thoughts on the piece, and books in general:
But this piece of writing will not, after all, become part “of my biography” the way physical texts do, as it will invariably vanish into the uncultivated, undifferentiated, un-curated part of my brain reserved for the mass of digital information, mediated by screens, that flows untrammeled through my fractured awareness almost every waking hour of every day (I’m not saying this particular article deserves to be preserved. I’m just using it as a case study). That is to say: I will forget it. It is not, and cannot be, mine in any lasting respect. Sure–this article can be saved, in the same way my photos and my music are saved, to my hard drive. But every last article I’ve abandoned to those digital archives, just like all of those jpgs and mp3s similarly consigned, has become like Indiana Jones’s lost ark: buried in an infinite warehouse of infinite treasures, never to be seen or heard from again.
And concludes with a touching realization:
I’ve determined that the way I can best incorporate a digital artifact into my continued existence, for lack of a physical analog, is to share it. (which is what I’m doing now). This is how I will hoard it: I will give it out, then field the reactions. The sharing is the mnemonic- the preserving agent.
It’s harder to incorporate a digital artifact into our lives. We don’t mark up the pages, dog-ear the corners, let the pages get bent and dirtied—we can’t make it our own. But perhaps, the one thing we can do to inject ourselves into this digital artifacts is to share it, to make sure the text lives with us, but also lives on past us.
The Consumption Beast
And then there is, of course, always, and inevitably, this spume of poetry that’s just blowing out of the sulphurous flue-holes of the earth. Just masses of poetry. It’s unstoppable, it’s uncorkable. There’s no way to make it end.
If we could just—just stop. For one year. If everybody could stop publishing their poems. No more. Stop it. Just— everyone. Every poet. Just stop.
—Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist
The consumption beast is hard to feed. It’s always hungry and there is never a shortage of food it can devour.
Sometimes I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle. The lists of books I want to read grows faster than the list of books I have read. The list of movies I want to see seems to never get shorter. Or all those television shows I said I wanted to start. Without even including my Instapaper articles or my daily blogs, I sometimes feel like I keep climbing and climbing but I’ll never make it to the top of this mountain. I’m weary.
It’s for the inspiration, right? That’s how I convince myself it is okay to watch one more episode or read one more chapter. We approach great works of art—whether that be books, movies, poetry, or even television—because we hope to find a little of ourselves in those stories, and in that, we can become better versions of ourselves. We sound more interesting at parties, we produce smarter work.
And maybe that’s the paradox of in it all: all this consuming, this quest for knowledge, to be smarter, better, more cultured actually takes us away from producing our own work. Isn’t that why we do it? Why read that book that will make me sound interesting at a party, if I’m not going to the party anyway?
But wouldn’t it be great? To have a moment to regroup and understand? Everybody would ask, Okie doke, what new poems am I going to read today? Sorry: none. There are no new poems. And so you’re thrown back onto what’s already there, and you look at what’s on your own shelves, that you bought maybe eight years ago, and you think, Have I really looked at this book? This book might have something to it. And it’s there, it’s been waiting and waiting. Without any demonstration or clamor. No squeaky wheel. It’s just been waiting.
If everybody was silent for a year—if we could just stop this endless forward stumbling progress—wouldn’t we all be better people? I think probably so. I think that the lack of poetry, the absence of poetry, the yearning to have something new, would be the best thing that could happen to our art. No poems for a solid year. Maybe two.If everybody was silent for a year—if we could just stop this endless forward stumbling progress—wouldn’t we all be better people? I think probably so. I think that the lack of poetry, the absence of poetry, the yearning to have something new, would be the best thing that could happen to our art. No poems for a solid year. Maybe two.
I’m still trying to figure out that balance. I tell myself I have a lifetime to acquire that knowledge I desire, to read those books and see those movies. What’s the rush, Jarrett? Why not spend some time creating something of your own, or returning to those stories that helped make you who you are?
Good art requires repeated visits. So even though there is a stack of books next to me waiting to be read and a long Netflix queue, tonight I just want to settle in with an old favorite.
What Makes Good Technology?
I’ve had an iPad 2 for about a month now. It took everything in my bones to skip the first one and hold out for the second generation. It’s been everything I’d imagined and has changed the way I interact with technology in multiple ways. I’ve felt like I should write something about it for a while now but wasn’t sure how to say it. What was my angle? How can I say something that hasn’t already been said? So much has already been written about the iPad that I wasn’t sure I could contribute anything of value.