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    Infinite Winter: The Hurt of Smart and Talented

    A huge theme of Infinite Jest is that there are pains inherent with talent.  A big part of this is athletic talent, which David Foster Wallace could write about because he was an immensely talented tennis player, just shy of pro. Another part of it is intellectual talent, which he could also write about because, well, if you’ve read him, I don’t have to try and convince you.

    At work, two colleagues were curious by the old Infinite Jest paperback from 1996 I am now carrying around. One of them, an attorney, had never heard of Wallace.  Another had been exhorted to read the book by a friend. Rather than push the book on either, I suggested they read the essay “Consider the Lobster” to see if they liked the taste.  The lawyer gave up and declared it “fancy” and complained about the footnotes and I think both observations are funny because I consider the lawyer a fancy person and much of my work with the lawyer involved footnotes, which he seems to love dearly.  The other guy hasn’t gotten back to me.  The point of this digression is that they are both smart people, but that not everybody takes to everything.

    This is, ultimately, DFW on talent.  We all have a lot of talents that we don’t take to.  It is particularly difficult to not live up to intellectual talent.  Or, worse, to have intellectual talents wind up thwarting us.

    To illustrate, here is something I’d like to share from my #infinitewinter reading (this is a snippet of dialogue heard by a counselor at a addiction treatment house, from a resident):

    “I’m not denying anything.  I’m simply asking you to define “alcoholic.”  How can you ask me to attribute myself a given term if you refuse to define the term’s meaning?  I’ve been a reasonably successful personal injury attorney for sixteen years, and except for that one ridiculous…”

    You see where this is going.  We have somebody here who is smart with language, quick with concepts and who is savvy and trying to argue himself out of rehab, thinking he’s acting for his own good, but likely not really.

    This is one of the more obvious instances in the book, and easily shareable, but it’s part of a provocative theme that he pushes much farther.  It so happens that over on another forum, I’ve been part a discussion where people who are facile with language, like our lawyer in recovery, have found new forms of denial.  

    To dramatize it (yes, this is me offsetting my own writing with the quotation function):

    Argument: White men are often so innately sexist that they don’t know it when they’re doing it.

    Artful Evasion:  Well, you see, while I sympathize where you’re coming from with that observation, while I understand the place of rage that motivates you to generalize, you must clearly understand that all blanket statements about men (or women for that matter) and white men in particular (or Muslims or black people or Jews -- though I will take care not to invoke nazis because somebody on the internet once said that to bring them up is to lose an argument and i cannot do that) are in all cases unethical and factually incorrect.  Perhaps, before we deal with your experiences of sexism, we can collectively try to find a better, less offensive and more factually accurate way to express what it is you’re trying to say.

    I’m not trying to litigate that matter over here (nor am I even trying to present either side fairly) but I am interested in how well Wallace captures smart and talented people undoing themselves and shielding themselves from the help and improvement they always say they want.

    Note: For what it's worth, and I understand that most of you are not losing sleep over what I choose to blog about, I am probably just going to blog about reading this book for the time-being and as the mood strikes me.  I'll deal with the elections in comments on all of your work and am pretty sure, in any event, that politics will be around when I turn the last page of Infinite Jest.  If any of the rest of you happen to have read it, are reading it, or are re-reading it, I urge you to join and blog about it.  I find the social aspect of reading has declined as the book has become less prominent in our cultural life.


    I am going to read this book, so I just bought the kindle version and I bought a companion piece that discusses the complexity of Infinite Jest. Hopefully, I can contribute to what should be a fascinating discussion of his work. I've never read him before. 

    Also, might I add, thank you.

    So, I first encountered it when it came out and I still have the copy from back then (junior year of college!)  But one of the interesting things about it is that the structure anticipates online reading in some many ways, with footnotes to the text and footnotes that reference other footnotes and the like.  The book predates Kindle and other e-readers by a decade but structurally, it might be easier and more fun to read on a Kindle.

    I read his unfinished novel The Pale King on Kindle.  It has a similar structure and is nearly as long.  I read it on iPhone and actually found the format helpful.  The smaller screen kept me from getting lost in the sea of words that can be Wallace in trade paperback and I did appreciate being able to jump back and forth from text to footnotes in a precise way.

    And, of course, you're welcome. I can unleash my wrestlers on your behalf in any thread where it seems necessary. All that muscle confuses the self-defined alphas.

    You blogged about Infinite Jest a couple years ago or at least mentioned it in a blog and whatever you said encouraged me to want to read it. I went for the audio version which I only listen to on long drives and I have ended up listening to some parts several times and still not all of it. All in all not the best way to give a book its best chance but nevertheless I have found it fascinating for some hours on end. If asked to write an essay on it for a class I would surely get an "f".  About the most meaningful thing I can say about it is thanks for tuning me onto it and that I look forward to more about it. 

     A quick story that both Infinite Jest and your discussion of language brings to mind involves a friend some years back who was nearing the end of his marriage. He had reluctantly agreed to go to counseling and we discussed it one night over a bunch of beers. He said they were at the point of talking about him and his personal habits and that there were a lot of questions about drinking and possible drug use. Later in the discussion I asked if he felt that the counseling was useful; had he learned anything valuable. "Yeah", he said with a grin, "I learned that you are and alcoholic".

    Thanks for this AGCLULU.

    Infinite Jest is one of those books that I can't imagine as an audio book and that I can't imagine adapting for theater or film.  But, if the audio book works for you, I might give that a try.  I have no hope that it will ever be a movie, which is ironic, given the story.

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