WSJ: Does this issue of length apply to books, too? Is a 1,000-page book somehow too much?
CM: For modern readers, yeah. People apparently only read mystery stories of any length. With mysteries, the longer the better and people will read any damn thing. But the indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that. If you think you’re going to write something like “The Brothers Karamazov” or “Moby-Dick,” go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don’t care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different.
Thus spake Cormac McCarthy in the weekend’s Wall Street Journal. He may have hit upon a nerve with me as to where I stand in my reading life.
For those of you who don’t know, I’m something of a completist and a tad braggadocios. I am the kind of person who has, in fact, read Moby-Dick but only so that I can said that I’ve read Moby-Dick (and, yes, I’ve read Moby-Dick). I’ve also run 4 marathons seemingly only to be able to say that I’ve done so (I’ve, you know, run 4 marathons)…but I digress.
We were talking about books. I read about 20-30 a year. That’s cover-to-cover. I start and abandon scores of books for various reasons but I (a completist) only count the ones that are complete. Of there 20ish, five or so tend to be stat-padders that I read, mostly in December, just to get my numbers up. You can say this is unfair but I’d say the same thing about home-runs hit against two-thirds of the pitchers in Major League Baseball but they still count.
However one of them each year will be a project book. Moby-Dick, Atlas Shrugged, Lonesome Dove; the kind of book that is big and heavy in every sense of both of those words. A book that takes effort. In doing this I feel I can justify the collection of sports books and glorified novellas I tack on after Thanksgiving.
For a while now I have been circling Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. And I’m wondering if 2010 shouldn’t be the year to undertake such an Infinite Quest (that was going to be the headline but I really love J. Alfred Prufrock and labor to include it in my conversation as much as is culturally accepted).
The limited amount of Mr. Foster Wallace that I have read I have really enjoyed. he is pedantic in a way that makes the reader feel spoken-up to instead of spoken down to (if that makes sense). But what I’ve read have been short stories and articles, the type of things where even if you are struggling the end is in sight so you may as well press on.
One gets the sense that were you to get lost in Infinite Jest it would be like getting lost in an algebra class and it would be impossible to catch up (trust me, I know).
But one also gets the sense that there are books that one must read (or at least attempt) to be taken seriously as a reader. And that Infinite Jest is one of those books.
Getting back to Mr. McCarthy’s point though, if writing an 800-page book is (self)-indulgent, what is to be said about reading one? Surely I would be doing it almost exclusively to impress myself (how many of you were truly awed by my Moby-Dick boast?). What could be more self-indulgent than taking time away from other things to read a book that maybe a handful of people I’ll meet in my life will be conversant in?
Perhaps the best answer as to why attempt Infinite Jest is the same answer George Mallory gave when asked why he attempted to summit Everest: “Because it’s there”. But I’m not sure I’m ready to buy mountain climbing equipment just yet.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Foster Wallace.