I’ve noticed something about my reading habits recently. I lean heavily toward genre fiction, but I in no way limit myself to that. I’ll pretty much read anything that has a plot that can pull me in. I’ll give any book a chance. But, if it hasn’t hooked me by page 100 or so I’ll probably set it aside. I like to give a book a chance but I don’t have the time to see every one I pick up though, and there is just too much to read. The system has worked for me but a book I started reading recently has begun to highlight a few flaws in my system. That book is Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
Anyone that has read or attempted to read this book will know it is a tome; it is a beast of a book and David Foster Wallace was a towering intellect. The man was a giant. This is my second attempt at reading the book. The first time I tossed in the towel, but the second round has been far more successful for me. I am really enjoying it. The point of mentioning this, though, is that by using the system I’ve had in place, I’ve been missing not just books that fail to capture my interest, I’ve realised that I’ve been getting lazy. I have not been staying with books that challenge me. I read for relaxation, to de-stress, to focus and to escape. Escapism is one of the significant benefits of good fiction and one of the reasons why I love reading so much. So when I find myself up against a book that will challenge me, like Infinite Jest, I think I may have a tendency to give up and unconsciously justify this as it not capturing me. Books like this require effort and willpower to consume, it’s a different sort of reading and it is one that I’m coming to enjoy now that I’ve begun to quantify it and understand it.
It isn’t a struggle when I read it with this mindset. I’m not trying to make it something that its not. It’s a nice feeling, and wow did it open up the book. It has engendered a connection and an appreciation of the book as the masterwork it is; this results in a detachment that doesn’t often happen in the books I usually read. Books like this are best read with an accompanying book, too, I think. Something you can use as a break, a stopgap. Limiting yourself to something challenging, dense and unbelievably verbose is a sure-fire way to burn out. I’ve always inwardly cringed when someone mentions, with obvious relish, reading the ‘classics’ or the ‘Russians’, and I’ve lumped dense literature into the same basket, to a certain extent. Reading Infinite Jest has opened my eyes a bit, so maybe I’m at the stage in my reading life where I could revisit some of the Dostoyevsky and the like that I’ve missed (avoided) in-between sci-fi and fantasy novels.
An appreciation of the written word, of careful and masterful execution of prose and style could be, and I think, should be, enough to appreciate and enjoy a book when reading in this mindset. I think the key is not to place limitations; to figure out if a book is boring or challenging, and if so why. I think this leads to a deeper understanding and appreciation of reading and writing, and a greater enjoyment of it. It also helps to not read something and continually think that it could be improved with the addition of a spaceship, giant robot, a wizard or someone wielding a sword. It would be, for the record. But books can get by without them.