Tag Archives: Jonathan Franzen

Swamped by ‘Infinite Jest’

On failing to finish David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece novel.

 Beach Stick x

Carry nothing even remotely vegetabalish if in the path of a feral herd.

Infinite Jest

To paraphrase Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, “It’s a terrible thing to quit a book. To take from it less than it has to give.” I don’t believe that about books—we should quit any one that’s not working for us and start another—but David Foster Wallace’s 1,079-page novel Infinite Jest is a special case. And I’ve just failed to read it for the second time.

How many sail around the world on their first try? Still, there’s a sense of failure involved in quitting any one of the world’s acknowledged Great Novels. (I have a secret list.) And a special poignancy for me in giving up yet again on Infinite Jest since I love Wallace’s nonfiction and wanted to join those who’ve beaten on against the current to the bitter end. It appears, as well, to be a novel, like Catch-22 and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance were for my generation, that’s an important marker for twentysomething readers and writers. Alas, I am not young. Just dropping Infinite Jest on my toe, even in this paperback version, might be tragic at my age.

I’ve had plenty of reading time between semesters, down here in Florida in my sister’s beach condo. Even so, I feared the cetaceous bulk of Infinite Jest. And once you open it and see its pages covered in a smaller-than-usual font, with sentences at tighter than usual spacing—and I’m not talking about the 96 pages of tiny single-spaced endnotes—you instantly know one thing for sure. Reading Infinite Jest is an opportunity cost. Because you could read at least six good novels in the time it’d take you to read it. Just sayin’.

Wallace's Infinite Jest

But that’s not relevant if it’s worth six good novels. There’s testimony it is, though in all honesty I made it only to Page 109 so how would I really know? Yet Wallace’s genius, energy, and belief in his work are palpable from the start. He could do anything as a writer, and he seems to do everything in Infinite Jest; of course he’s got all the basic chops, from sentences to scenes, from point of view to voice. Incidentally, Wallace, both a grammarian and someone who could write circles around almost anyone, had no problem with breaking the heart of his frenemy Jonathan Franzen by using the “, then” construction that drives Franzen crazy. Franzen’s hatred of this common and useful usage pattern has made me weirdly sensitive to it; I see it everywhere, and I see his point. But his point, in his way, is also annoyingly overstated (and partly specious). (Watch Wallace cruelly dominate Franzen on Charlie Rose’s show.)  A minor quirk in Infinite Jest is Wallace’s use of single quotation marks; reviewing another book of his, Oblivion, for The Modern World, Marie Mundaca said they “seem to indicate that the entire story is enclosed in a set of double quotes.”

But to stand back. Wallace had the genius’s way with metaphor—at the sentence level, sure, but pertinently here in the overarching sense: how he sets up a bleak exaggerated future America. One in which our prosperity and beloved diversions (video, drugs, sports, advertising) turn hellish as richly flawed people struggle amid ascendant corporations and an environmental holocaust. New England is a toxic waste dump called the Great Concavity and roamed by Québécois separatist terrorists.

Blessedly I made it to Page 93, and so to the horde of rampaging hamsters:

     It’s a herd of feral hamsters, a major herd, thundering across the yellow plains of the southern reaches of the Great Concavity in what used to be Vermont, raising dust that forms a uremic-hued cloud with somatic shapes interpretable from as far away as Boston and Montreal. The herd is descended from two domestic hamsters set free by a Watertown NY boy at the beginning of the Experialist migration in the subsidized Year of the Whopper. The boy now attends college in Champaign IL and has forgotten that his hamsters were named Ward and June.

 

The noise of the herd is tornadic, locomotival. The expression on the hamsters’ whiskered faces is businesslike and implacable—it’s that implacable-herd expression. They thunder eastward across pedalferrous terrain that today is fallow, denuded. To the east, dimmed by the fulvous cloud the hamsters send up, is the vivid verdant ragged outline of the annularly overfertilized forests of what used to be central Maine.

 

All these territories are now property of Canada.

 

With respect to a herd of this size, please exercise the sort of common sense that come to think of it would keep your thinking man out of the southwest Concavity anyway. Feral hamsters are not pets. They mean business. Wide berth advised. Carry nothing even remotely vegetabalish if in the path of a feral herd. If in the path of such a herd, move quickly and calmly in a direction perpendicular to their own. If American, north not advisable. Move south, calmly and in all haste, toward some border metropolis—Rome NNY or Glens Falls NNY or Beverly, MA, say, or those bordered points between them at which the giant protective ATHSCME fans atop the hugely convex protective walls of adonized Lucite hold off the drooling and piss-colored bank of teratogenic Concavity clouds and move the bank well back, north, away, jaggedly, over your protected head.

One of the funniest passages I’ve read, it thrums with a deep sadness, maybe like all humor. Like Wallace’s, anyway. Like watching reruns of Leave it to Beaver and aching for your lost youth and for a more innocent America. Maybe you’ve not read Infinite Jest or, like me, have failed so far to finish it (in my case for largely unknown reasons but probably involving a reading hangover from my personal best reading year just ended, work I lugged with me, and a stupor induced by ocean waves breaking a stone’s throw from my pillow). If so, remember you read it here first: Carry nothing even remotely vegetabalish if in the path of a feral herd.

In 2009, my son, Tom Gilbert, reviewed Infinite Jest for Narrative.

Advertisements

9 Comments

Filed under experimental, fiction, humor, metaphor, MY LIFE, punctuation, reading, REVIEW

Four writers on their messy process

Bill Roorbach has instituted a new feature over at Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, an author interview. The first, with John J. Clayton, marking the appearance of his new novel, Mitzvah Man, is remarkable for being done all in scene—Bill interviewed him at his home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts—and for Clayton’s thoughts on just what God truly is. Or may be.

On his laborious daily struggle to write:

 I do what I can to avoid writing fiction, because writing fiction is the hardest thing I do.  I answer emails; I fabricate the need to write emails; I read parts of The New York Times on line.  I lie down for five minutes.  Now I write.  When I’ve got something coming, I’m grateful.  I don’t listen to music—I put earplugs in my ears and write.  If nothing is coming or if what’s coming bores me, I take a walk with my cassette recorder and our dog and talk to myself.  Then I go home and jot down notes from what I’ve said.  It’s a good system, because then later or the next day I have something to start from.  I write from 8:30 to 12:30, then have lunch, then do all the secondary stuff like scrounging for readings, sending out old stories, etc.  And reading.  For six months I’ve been writing a novel and having a hard time.  There’s a lot of waste effort.  But I do have faith in my process—if I keep working, something will come.  I can’t make it come, but I’m convinced that it will come.

At Hippocampus Magazine, Amye Archer has a great interview with memoirist Beverly Donofrio, author of Riding in Cars with Boys and Looking for Mary. Donofrio lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where she founded and currently directs the San Miguel Workshops. Her thoughts on memoir as a form of imaginative literature—nonfiction but not journalism—are astute.

Her routine:

I get up, make coffee, read something spiritual, meditate, do yoga, then write. Some days I skip the yoga, some days I go for an early morning walk. All of the disciplines are in some way in service to the writing. To get me centered, able to focus, less stressed. I print out constantly and edit with a pencil. On the memoir I’m writing now, I rewrite and polish a chapter until I think it is good and it is finished. I pin it to the wall. Write the next chapter till I think it is good and finished, then go back to the previous chapter and sometimes the one or two before that one. Invariably I find that none are good enough or finished. But, by moving on to the next, I’ve gained enough distance to view it with a fresh eye. My first take on situations, my memories, the stories I want to tell is fairly superficial. I hate this about myself: I’m fairly superficial. Only through writing do I go deep, and each draft brings me deeper still. Perhaps if my default weren’t to be so shallow, it would take many less drafts to get to the good stuff: the truth.

At Catching Days Cynthia Newberry Martin catches up with New Orleans writer Barb Johnson, author of the short story collection More of This World or Maybe Another. As the latest writer featured in Cynthia’s smart series on writers at work, Johnson reflects on writing from the perspective of someone who spent twenty years busting her guts as a carpenter.

Her struggle with herself and against the pernicious Internet:

 I love revision. I love to edit. Those things come easily. But making up the new stuff can be scary. The carpenter part of my brain is always trying to find the most efficient way to do everything, but efficiency has no place in generating new material. It takes however long it takes, and the result is often too ugly for me to believe that one day it will be better, good even. So, as a way to keep myself going, I promise myself that I can do anything I want, anything at all, once I hit that thousand-word mark. I can get up and go hang out with friends or finish the book I’m reading or take a nap if I want to. That nap part of the bargaining is hilarious: I never, ever nap. But when I stare at a blank page, it makes me sleepy, so the promise of a nap always feels meaningful.

. . . It most certainly does not mean screwing around on the Internet. The Internet shortens your attention span. Because of its click-and-drag wizardry, it will leave you feeling impatient with the rather labor-intensive, single-focus nature of writing.  All that clickety-click quickly starves your creativity. Writing requires you to make a car out of cardboard box. The Internet gives you the car, complete with customization options applied by clicking a button. Once you contribute to your writerly stash for the day, then go ahead on, find out what your friends have been up to on Facebook while you’ve been cutting holes in cardboard boxes all day.

Franzen earned those whiskers, buddy

Terry Gross has rebroadcast a Fresh Air interview with Jonathan Franzen about his epic novel Freedom, on the occasion of its paperback edition. Franzen worked nine years on Freedom, producing a very good memoir and a neat essay collection in the meantime while enduring depression and doubt as he slogged through the novel. (He’s disabled the ability of his laptop to connect to the Internet.) I love his fiction and his nonfiction. I can’t join the Franzen haters, despite his recent infuriatingly obtuse and self-centered New Yorker essay about his late friend David Foster Wallace.

In this interview, Franzen talks about stripping his style down—he made a self-publicized shift toward traditional fiction some time ago—and what it cost him to go deeply into his characters:

 I don’t want to be a performer. I less and less want to be a performer. And I can’t seem to be a performer. If I’m just writing about something moderately interesting and using interesting, well-termed sentences, it just has no life. It has to come out of some issue that’s still hot in me, something that’s distressing me. And there are plenty of things to be distressed about and for a long time, I was able to get a lot of energy onto the page from certain kinds of political distress, environmentalist distress — even aesthetic distress. … And that kind of anger has become less interesting to me because it seems like a younger man’s game a little bit. …

I wanted to write long before I was in need of therapy. But having said that, much of the work on a novel for me consists in the kind of work you might do in a paid professional’s office of trying to walk back from your stuck, conflicted, miserable place to a point of a little bit more distance, from which you can begin to fashion some meaningful narrative of how you got to the stuck place. And the stuck-ness, for the working novelist — or at least for this one — has to do with not wanting to get into certain intensely fraught or private experiences… [but] feeling that it’s absolutely necessary to say things that are absolutely unsay-able.

And I keep trying — I kept trying, through much of the last decade — to access these subjects, these dreamlike relations with important people from my past in direct ways…. So there was a lot of self-psychoanalysis, certainly, that goes into the work. And, along the way, becoming depressed — although it certainly feels lousy — comes to be a key and important symptom. It’s a flag. And it’s almost as if, when I start to crash, I know I’m getting somewhere because it’s being pushed to a crisis.

 

8 Comments

Filed under discovery, fiction, memoir, NOTED, religion & spirituality, working method

On hating certain books

My friend Candyce Canzioneri took this photo at a lake near our homes. We're all—man, bird, and beast alike—freezing our butts off here in Ohio.

Works of art are of an infinite solitariness, and nothing is less likely to bring us near to them than criticism. Only love can apprehend and hold them, and can be just towards them.—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

I’ve just finished reading two new books on writing. One was brief, began well, and then wrecked. Worthless! Almost shameful, from a well-known writer. The other, a little longer, possesses some virtues but left me deeply peeved at its author. I’m not going to name them or their books, let alone damn them, because it’s just not worth it, to spend one’s energy that way. Rarely I do it, usually if the author’s dead and thus beyond caring. I so loathed a widely beloved novel a year or two ago that it was all I could do to refrain from yelping about what a horrible, nasty, awful thing it truly is. I harbor spiteful prejudice against its author, for sentimentally loving its sentimental narrator. Yet better writers and readers than I love the damn book.

Having recently finished Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a novel whose insights and narrative sweep and realized ambition astounded me, I’m glad I (mostly) held my tongue about that other novel. I was so eager to talk about Freedom that I urged it on friends, and even bought copies for three of them. Two liked it almost as much as I did. The third despised it, and Franzen. I felt my friend was unreasonable and projecting qualities to hate upon the writer and his book. That’s what I probably did with the novel I hated. (Except: I was right—it’s awful, the emperor has no clothes! Trust me.)

Freedom received one of the most glowing reviews ever published in The New York Times Book Review, by its editor, Sam Tanenhaus. And Franzen was canonized by Time, which put him on its cover with the headline “The Great American Novelist.” The hype got hackles up. Franzen has said he was surprised by how kind reviewers were to the book, since he expected they’d be laying for him after his 2001 mega-hit, The Corrections. Turns out, he should have been worried about Regular Joe Reviewers. There are many rave reviews of Freedom on Amazon, but so many angry one- and two-star screeds that its average rating was brought down to a modest three stars out of five. And many ugly things were said about Freedom in The New Yorker’s online book discussion group, surely an irony for Franzen, if he read them, because of his long association as a reporter and essayist for the magazine.

What my friend’s anger at Freedom showed me was that I can’t bank on

Candyce's poster documents her good attitude

Amazon’s negative reviews—or even its positive ones—as reliable gauges of my reading experience. And more than that: it showed me how deeply personal and subjective our reading preferences are. Which I think is why the mainstream’s endangered reviewers are so valuable. Such folks are, or should be, I think, properly constrained by various existential pressures, which temper reviewers’ deeply personal reactions. It’s an art to write a mixed review; it’s easier, and more fun, to flay the hide off an author—some poor slob who spent years, nine in the case of Freedom, slaving to offer his gift to the world. Michiko Kakutani at the daily New York Times sometimes does this, I feel. She was cruelly harsh toward Franzen for his The Discomfort Zone, which I found a brave, funny book, but which seemed to trigger in her that odd outrage toward memoirists that afflicts many New York gatekeepers. I believe this is why Franzen called Kakutani, a Pulitzer winner, the stupidest person in the entire world. (Yet she adored Freedom, and to her credit, despite her prior review and Franzen’s comment, she raved.)

What is with this anger? What sets it off in so many of us? Some of it’s got to be wounded pride. Maybe some is genuinely offended taste—we’re proud of having taste, or a sense of art. But must we be so spiteful? Evidently some of us must, even though we’re talking about works of art here, not the criminal George W. Shrub administration or crass Hollywood revenge-fantasy movies.

I wonder what book you’ve loved despite the world’s negative opinion or hated unreasonably despite the herd’s vulgar affections? Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love seemed to set off many people on both sides of that gulch. I read it with growing annoyance, for it seemed dishonest to me, but had to marvel at her writing ability. Maybe that’s the thing about books: We also react to them like they’re people, and consider how few people become close friends, fewer still soulmates. How does one view and react to those who just aren’t one’s cup of tea? And how do you know when someone you actively dislike deserves it and when you’re just hating qualities in another that you possess yourself but can’t admit?

12 Comments

Filed under fiction, memoir, MY LIFE, reading

Kindle (& Updike) redux

As I was saying early in January, I was almost through Jonathan Franzen’s 576-page novel Freedom—wow, what a Mississippi river of a book, churning with social criticism, human portraits, narrative power—when I dropped and broke my Christmas Kindle. In two days I was reading again, on a device officially known as “Richard’s 2nd Kindle,” rushed from the Amazon mothership. Since then I have read on it four more books: Franzen’s delicious memoir The Discomfort Zone; J.R. Moehringer’s hearty bestselling memoir of boyhood and drink The Tender Bar; Franzen’s book of impressive essays and reportage How to Be Alone; and genius John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, a model of elegant prose style.

I think I’m reading more with the Kindle, somehow. Maybe because I read while exercising indoors this winter, get further hooked by a book, and read it faster to finish it.

Maybe it’s just the novelty effect.

I’m uncomfortable with that possibility, just as I’m uncomfortable with aspects of the Kindle and love others. There was an electronically garbled passage in one book; sometimes spaces between words are removed. Being able to search is great, but paging through the book to get anywhere fast in it is a monumental pain. There must be a function that will whip me faster front to back, but I haven’t found it. This is another weakness, the need to learn the kinks of device to read. Books are warm, with life in them, so perfectly evolved a medium. I’m haunted by Robert Pirsig’s great line from his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “The heart of technology is death.” One could say this applies to any tools—his insight flowed from the internal combustion engine, as I recall—but it applies especially to high technology like electronics and the apparatus of space travel.

The Kindle is so damn convenient, though, I felt like such a grouchy geezer. But then I began consciously to notice with Rabbit, Run the faint dotted underlining under great passages—what others have highlighted. Thus does the Kindle queer one’s reading experience: the world intrudes. But on the one hand this is great: I won’t miss the quotable lines every book reviewer, blogger, and reading braggart must have. On the other, it is one of reading’s pleasures to find such nuggets on one’s own, thus make them yours. On the other, that’s a young man’s vanity; I’m middle aged—which means only that old age hasn’t got me quite fully in its grip—and am slower to spurn help. Let me be clear about this, however: if like most people you dislike others’ markings and highlightings in a book, you will hate this feature.

The adumbrated underling reminds me of Amazon’s bullying suggestions that appear on my Kindle screen: Do I want to turn on my wireless connection? Hey, I’m saving juice here. Why have the thing on—so Amazon can know even more about me than it already does? No, thank you. Then I hopped into a passage that thrilled me partly for this idiotic reason: No one else has underlined it! Here, Rabbit has just left his wife and spent the night with a prostitute. Reading these very male truths I felt like a prospector splashing through a stream and seeing a gold nugget a hundred idiots have missed:

The thing about her is, she’s good-natured. He knew it the second he saw her standing by the parking meters. He could just tell by the way her thighs made a lap. With women, you keep bumping against them, because they want different things; they’re a different race. The good ones develop give. In all the green world nothing feels as good as a woman’s good nature.

Maybe, if I turn my wireless on, other e-buyers of Rabbit, Run will have my taste inflicted upon them. Not many pages later, I came across a line pre-underlined: “Funny, the world just can’t touch you once you follow your instincts”; it made me wonder how many dumb high school kids are using Kindles and flagging likely term paper fodder. That phrase isn’t portable—it’s just Rabbit’s stray subjective notion—but my line, well mine seems to be beating its blunt aphoristic wings hard enough to fly free of the harebrain. (Yet he’s not just some feckless guy who disgracefully leaves his pregnant wife and small child, impressions from many half-remembered reviews aside; rather, he’s one who runs in fear when he realizes he’s hurtling toward death with someone he doesn’t love.)

“We’re marching toward March,” I’ve been telling my freshmen, hardly believing it myself. Eliot had it wrong. It’s endless January that’s the cruelest month, good for reading though it was. Nothing remotely spring-like except a bird bravely singing a little at daybreak—why? Well, January is gone and good riddance. But February first and second the campus was shut down by ice. Then I blundered across another virgin passage in Rabbit, Run that reminded me of spring—it will come, and then summer, my best season—and it showed how wonderfully Updike could convey the way humans experience the physical world, not just each other, through a suffused scrim of emotion. Rabbit, still on the lam but employed by a dowager for garden chores, is out burning last season’s spent stalks and other brown detritus:

Sun and moon, sun and moon, time goes. In Mrs. Smith’s acres, crocuses break the crust. Daffodils and narcissi unpack their trumpets. The reviving grass harbors violets, and the lawn is suddenly coarse with dandelions and broad-leaved weeds. Invisible rivulets running brokenly make the low land of the estate sing. The flowerbeds, bordered with bricks buried diagonally, are pierced by dull red spikes that will be peonies, and the earth itself, scumbled, stone-flecked, horny, raggedly patched with damp and dry, looks like the oldest and smells like the newest thing under Heaven.

15 Comments

Filed under emotion, fiction, memoir, MY LIFE, NOTED, reading

A Kindle tragedy

Oh no.

Setting my new Christmas Kindle atop the mound of books on the nightstand beside my bed last night precipitated an avalanche. Books and Kindle took a tumble onto the hardwood floor.

The books, of course, were fine. None the worse for wear. But this morning when I launched my Kindle, something was very wrong indeed. The screensaver image—a bird, some warbler or meadowlark gripping a reed—stayed pasted over half the screen.

I’d been deeply engrossed in Jonathan Franzen’s amazing blockbuster novel Freedom, careening through the book’s last act like an overloaded West Virginia coal truck with cooked brakes. And thanks to my Kindle’s Progress Bar, or whatever it’s called, I knew last night when I paused for sleep that I ‘d reached “89 %.”

Not anymore. The coal truck crashed. I called Amazon, and for a small fee (not so small, actually, but Kathy’s reading my blog so I’m gonna be vague) they’re rushing me a new device and I’m sending mine back to the Kindle mothership.

I’m going to refrain from pointing out, again, that a thirty-inch drop left real books unfazed but left me holding my Kindle in a painful state of reading interruptus. After all, I’m lovin’ my ereader, especially while riding an exercise bike, and feeling so thoroughly modern at last.

Oh, Kindle, I hardly knew you!

This reminds me of my Computer Incident two summers ago just after I’d finally, proudly, migrated to a laptop. In that case it was the dog’s fault for knocking my Mac off my bed onto the hardwood and breaking the motherboard. Though, as with any disaster worth the dignity of that name, multiple factors were involved. As one of the great characters in Freedom says in her memoir, Mistakes Were Made. (What happened in the case of Jack vs. the Mac is fascinating only to me and my family, but too tedious to relate here, even for me.)

This time it was a pile of books, destabilized by a slender paperback, Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy—really—that was the proximate cause. And my latest new Kindle is going to take care of that problem. Right.

21 Comments

Filed under MY LIFE, reading

To read, perhance to Kindle

At a recent dinner party I aired my impression that Kindle books weren’t much cheaper on Amazon than real books. Friends looked at me like I was crazy. I can see why now, if they go only to the Kindle store. On Christmas day, my own new

Great novel, not yet Kindled.

Kindle in hand, I priced Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel The Help in hardback: it’s listed at $24.95—while the Kindle version is only $12.99! But wait. Visiting the regular Amazon store on my laptop computer, I saw that the actual discounted Amazon price for the physical book was $12.84—a whole fifteen cents cheaper than the ebook. And as an “Amazon Prime” member, I get free shipping, so there’s no extra cost to get a hard copy.

All around, the electronic version of The Help would cost me more, especially since I can’t resell a digital book but could unload my used copy for a few bucks. Plus, The Help is in paperback for only $9.99, so the Kindle version costs three dollars more than what I actually would buy. (There appears to be a bigger spread on Amazon between some hardbacks and the Kindle price: Bruce Marchart’s stunning debut novel The Wake of Forgiveness, not in paperback yet, was $16.57, while the Kindle copy was $14.30.)

I’ll get beyond my common, kneejerk notion that ebooks ought to be much cheaper than physical ones. And in theory, more money will flow from digital sales to publishers and writers. In practice, I’ve read, a bigger cut is going to middlemen like Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Anyway, my main idea in having Kathy give me a Kindle wasn’t to save money but to stop amassing books. I’m not good about reselling or otherwise moving them along, truth be told. Our bookshelves and basement are jammed. Plus the Kindle seems great for travel, during which I often lug at least four books.

Shopping for my Kindle, I noticed, I paid more heed to Top Sellers. Stieg Larsson’s thrillers lured me more strongly, as did the crowd-pleasing (but reportedly also fine) The Help. The Kindle makes me want to get with it rather than seek out quirky masterpieces. But am I really a reader if, buried in thirty-year-old books, I miss one sensation after another? What about living, and reading, in one’s own time? Lately I’ve wanted to read more bestsellers anyway, partly to keep up with my friends who aren’t writers but are readers. They scarf the bestsellers, and the best of those books are pretty darn good. Hey, Laura Hillenbrand’s new nonfiction blockbuster, Unbroken, is sixth on the Kindle Top Sellers list!

And yet on Christmas day, trying to decide the first book I’d read on my Kindle, I defaulted to a classic American novel long on my list and again in the movie theaters: True Grit. Sorry: Charles Portis’s classic—forty-two years old—hasn’t been Kindled yet. Finally I downloaded Jonathan Franzen’s celebrated novel Freedom and J.H. Moehringer’s acclaimed memoir The Tender Bar. I dipped into each and quickly quit because the reading experience just didn’t feel the same. I’ve since realized what’s missing is, um, the humble physical page. We grow up with the convention of the 8.5 by 11-inch page, which publishers shrink and yet honor. We unconsciously gauge any publication in terms of its size in relation to that measure. The reason I can write happily on a computer with electronic words probably is because Microsoft gives me a mockup of the page upon which I bonded, so to speak, in grade school. Ereaders’ words are pureed from that highly evolved structure.

Then I realized at the gym how nicely my Kindle would have nested above the handlebars of the exercise bike I was laboring upon in acute boredom. And the other night in the car, Kathy driving, I whipped out my Kindle and, pulling a nifty nightlight antenna from my Kindle’s fragrant leather case, I read the first part of Freedom. I heard the narrator’s voice and was swept along by the story. Yet I realized what I really miss about the physical page is being able to dog-ear it. I understand there’s various ways to flag things digitally, but that’s not the same as my practice of immediately marking the pages at section breaks. I want to know how a writer structured the story, and I want to see and feel how many physical pages were allotted for each act. I enjoyed the first section of Freedom, but have no sense for how long it is in relation to the whole book. Reading as a writer, this bugs me. It may matter less for certain books, like collections of short stories or essays, because the Kindle would preserve their internal structures in the form of paragraphing and line breaks.

Maybe one can develop a sense for length in relation to the whole with ereaders, though I doubt it. Perhaps I’ll read mostly collections. My Kindle may be the ticket for reading Montaigne’s essays (albeit probably not in my favored translation). I’ve loved listening to audio books while driving, so maybe this is yet another issue of using each medium in its proper place. And I have to admit that I feel strangely suave and au courant when I gaze downward upon the sleek Kindle. Like I’m a model posed in some strangely compelling future. The device brings out in me a misplaced and curious vanity.

Novelist Nicholson Baker touches on this odd egotism, amusingly calling the Kindle the “Bowflex of books,” in his testy 2009 New Yorker essay about his ereading experience. He hates words on Kindle’s gray screen. And:

Photographs, charts, diagrams, foreign characters, and tables don’t fare so well [either]. Page numbers are gone, so indexes sometimes don’t work. Trailing endnotes are difficult to manage. If you want to quote from a book you’ve bought, you have to quote by location range—e.g., the phrase “She was on the verge of the mother of all orgasms” is to be found at location range 1596-1605 in Mari Carr’s erotic romance novel “Tequila Truth.”

He liked Sony’s e-reader more, and ultimately Apple’s iPod or iPhone with Kindle app (now, presumably the iPad, too). He favors their bright backlit screens, since he reads in bed when he awakes in the middle of the night, and says it’s sharpness of type that readers truly crave, not freedom from fatiguing glare. In this jibe, of course, he strikes at dedicated

Finally lovin' Franzen for Kindle.

ereaders’ proudest claim, that they’re not backlit, so they can be read in sunlight, or read longer, or something. Eventually, however, he loses himself in a novel on the Kindle. He never says a darn thing about the structural issue that irks me.

As my children noted without sympathy, I might have foreseen this obvious difference instead of getting all high and mighty about the fact that, although electronic images replaced paper and typewriters for me as a writer long ago, it appears impossible for ereaders to ape the way I maul physical books. Anyway, I’ve since gotten engrossed in Freedom. (The Kindle’s Location Bar, or whatever it’s called, says I’ve read “34%” of Freedom, a dispiriting and unhelpful factoid that only reminds me I’m flying blind through its structure.) I’m totally smitten with the novel—maybe I’ll buy the paperback when it’s issued and reread it. And maybe I’ll learn, or be told by better users—like those who bothered to read the owner’s manual—there’s a miraculous workaround for my own idiosyncratic objection.

14 Comments

Filed under evolutionary psychology, fiction, MY LIFE, reading, structure