"Infinite Jest" sits on my bookshelf mocking me. With the possible exception of "2666" by Roberto Bolaño, no book that I own seems more daunting to me. “Infinite Jest” is a sprawling 1000+ page postmodern classic, which, in a classic Wallace move, contains almost as much information in the footnotes as it does in the main text.
Wallace was a towering intellect that was able to talk authoritatively about a great many topics, which culminated in “Infinite Jest”. Wallace is also of interest to me because he grew up in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois and even ended up teaching for a while at Illinois State University in Bloomington, Illinois, which is very near where I grew up. Tragically, as seems to happen with many creative geniuses, he also struggled with depression, which ultimately appeared to be the cause for Wallace taking his own life on September 12, 2008.
But, still I have resisted. 1000 pages is more than just a read, it is a commitment. And, it is intimidating – after all, what if I start it and find several hundred pages in that I just can’t grasp what he is saying. It has the potential to be quite ego-deflating. On the other hand, Wallace has generated such a devoted following among those who have read his work, that I feel like I am missing something important, like membership in some group that I desperately wanted to be a part of.
My interest in Wallace was renewed when the Slate Culture Podcast discussed the selection of Ben Zimmer to be the permanent replacement for William Safire as the “On Language” columnist in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. On that podcast, as a sidebar to the discussion about Zimmer, Dana Stevens mentioned that Wallace was very much into language and grammar and had written Tense Present for the April 2001 edition of Harper’s Magazine about the “Usage Wars”. So, in order to get a feeling for Wallace without the commitment to hundreds of pages, I downloaded the article and got started on some “Wallace-lite”.
In the beginning of the article, Wallace introduces a term, SNOOT, defined as a person that cares very much about language and how it is used in spoken and written language. Wallace reveals himself to be a SNOOT, and I must admit, I am one myself. I have a particular SNOOTiness about adverbs. There is something in me that rings a bell in my head when I hear that someone “will do this quicker”. For a long time, I was unable to restrain myself from saying “you mean more quickly”. As I grow older, I have come to realize how annoying that is (and, by extension, how annoying I am), so I let it pass. But, believe me, I still silently dig my fingernails into the table every time it happens. So, I was quite happy to find a kindred spirit in the beginning of this essay.
Wallace argues that this is actually important. Standard Written English (SWE), as he calls what SNOOTs purport to defend, is more than just the information being conveyed. There is context and subtext as well. Wallace tells us in this essay that using SWE correctly is a matter of acceptance, as well as consideration and social manners. Acceptance — in that people judge others by their language, and will assuredly always do so. Consideration and social manners – in that “incorrect” SWE almost always requires some extra effort on behalf of the listener to ensure that the message received is what was intended to be communicated.
But Wallace does have some tough love for us SNOOTs. As should be obvious, the “correct” language in any situation is particularly dependent on the audience. In one of the more interesting propositions in the essay, he states that SNOOTs are really individuals who were not able to understand how to adjust “correct” English for different target audiences. In my life, I have “project-manager English”, “bridge-player English”, “straight-friend English”, “gay-friend English”, each of which can at times be totally incomprehensible to someone not part of that group. So, SNOOTs are those that never understand that “correct SWE” is really a term for the language that is expected by a very particular target audience. It gives me something to think about the next time that Adverb Bell rings in my head (although I will still hear its distinct tone loudLY and clearLY).
So, did “Tense Present” increase my interest in reading “Infinite Jest”? Yes. Wallace intersperses a great bit of humor in this essay, especially in the dreaded footnotes. It was significantly more readable than it appeared at first glance. Did “Tense Present” decrease the intimidation factor inherent in “Infinite Jest”? No. Not in the least. But, now it is more like the Mount Everest of my bookshelf – I must conquer it simply because it is there.
Unfortunately for me, well into its existence, I discovered the Internet book club Infinite Summer, which was created to have a group experience of reading “Infinite Jest” over the summer in 2009. I suppose I could dig through the archives and try to re-create the experience for myself, but without the live community, it would a poor imitation. Ironically, “Infinite Summer” did not last long enough for me. Is there anyone out there that wants to be part of a group experience reading this difficult book?