Quitting Time

I’m sure Rob Horning isn’t the first participant in the Infinite Summer race to crash into the wall, but his crack-up makes for more interesting reading than others’:

It’s not that I don’t read long books—I’ll happily plod along through Trollope’s triple deckers, and in graduate school I worked mainly on the novels of Samuel Richardson,whose Clarissa clocks in at 1,500 pages in the Penguin edition. I just don’t have patience for long, incoherent books. Infinite Jest seemed like pointless jigsaw puzzle; unlike Pynchon’s books, in which their seems to be so much interconnection between the various threads and so many resonating levels of meaning criss-crossing through the text that it’s almost overwhelming but always compelling you to work at holding it together in your mind, Wallace’s book just seems to dump a bunch of confusing stuff in your lap and hope that you are too disoriented to recognize that it’s not interesting.

Horning feels a little guilty for stopping short (“the book succeeded in making me feel like a failure”), but he needn’t. I tend to make a good-faith effort to finish what I start, but that’s largely a sensibility instilled in me as a reviewer, where I’m ethically and contractually obligated to get to the end of what I’m assigned. So I give up less often than most people, but I still do at times—Geraldine BrooksPeople of the Book and Kim Deitch‘s Alias the Cat being two recent ones I’ve abandoned. And I’ve shipwrecked at least twice on big important bricks like JR and Gravity’s Rainbow.

George Mason University professor Tyler Cowen figures this is a perfectly fine state of affairs. He tells the Washington Times that he finishes only about 10 to 20 percent of the books he starts:

“If I’m reading a truly, actively bad book, I’ll throw it out,” he says. His wife will protest, but he points out that he’s doing a public service: “If I don’t throw it out, someone else might read it.” If that person is one of the many committed to finishing a book once started, he’s actually doing harm.

The disappointing part of Horning’s giving up on Infinite Jest is that he’s in many ways the book’s ideal reader—somebody attuned to David Foster Wallace‘s gamesmanship and who was willing to meet the novel’s complexities halfway. I suspect that part of the problem here, and what’s going to ruin more Infinite Summer participants like Horning, is that it’s a time-bound experience. It’s not that the “75 pages a week” mandate is especially onerous, even considering Infinite Jest‘s dense pages. But it reframes the experience, making the novel something that needs to be finished instead of read. For reviewers and academics, this hardly counts as a problem; for everybody else, though, it turns the book into a reminder of a school assignment, a mad hustle to cram for a test that’s never going to be delivered anyway.

2 thoughts on “Quitting Time

  1. Thanks for pointing me to Horning’s site and his decision to stop Jesting. I’ve reached the point where it’s either keep going or put it down, too.

    I, too, am a long book reader: GR, M & D, JR, DonQ, Moby D, Giles GB, Foucault’s Pendulum, Underworld, (tho’ not The Tunnel, yet) to name-drop a few.

    IJ, however, feels flat, barren qua story. The writing is exquisite, but it’s a bit of an info-dump that’s, of course, interesting and detailed, but unselective. The characters are well-drawn, but there’s a cast of thousands.

    Anyway, it’s the only book I’m taking to the beach on vacation. I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

    Best,
    Jim H.

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