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Ezra Klein and Too Little Fun

Ezra Klein over at A Supposedly Fun Blog had this to say of this week’s milestone:

But my enjoyment of the book is not outpacing my growing frustration with it. I ignore most of the footnotes. If you want to know why I ignore most of the footnotes, check out footnote 216. Yeah, fuck you too, David.

I guess what I would ask is what happens when you run across a word whose precise definition you don’t know (in any book). Do you just skip over it or figure that the context will iron it out? I know I often skip and figure. Good readers (and I’m not claiming to be one — see the comment just prior) will stop and look up the word. When you see an unfamiliar word (e.g. “Coatlicue”) that has an end note saying “No clue” (e.g. note 216), you are being told pretty clearly to go look the word up. I guess the note could say “Hey, you might want to look this up” rather than the more whimsical “No clue,” but then a reader like Ezra would be pissed that Wallace didn’t just include the word’s definition in the note (but he’d be pissed if Wallace did include it because it’d be too much extra information that he (= Klein) doesn’t care about because he’s got TPS reports to file or whatever). The note isn’t a fuck you. It’s an invitation to go outside the boundaries of the text to bring some deeper understanding back into the text. It’s a chance to learn something.

I’m not going to get in as big a funk over this as I did over Avery’s post of a couple of weeks ago. Klein doesn’t have time to commit himself to reading the book, and that’s understandable. I don’t really have the time, frankly (I’m missing lots of Cubs baseball games to read and write about the book). I do wish that naysayers like Klein (who has been disposed to dislike the book from the beginning) and Avery would own some agency (ie, that they have other priorities they rate higher than reading IJ) rather than couching their difficulty with the book in terms of some sort of agency on Wallace’s part (ie, he’s wasting their time and antagonizing them). It’s a little silly. It’s like going to the gym and being frustrated that you have to lift the weights to see any benefit. Sometimes you have to do more than just show up to reap any reward.

  1. August 11, 2009 at 10:11 am

    Considering the content, I’d hope that at 500 pages in a reader reluctant to put in the work that the book clearly requires – what else do you expect when you pick this thing up? it weighs like 5 pounds – might start reflecting a little on his/her own desire to just sort of passively receive entertainment or wisdom or whatever they expected to get out of the book.

    I love the book. I’ve kind of grudgingly accepted that not everyone else will love the book. I mean, I love those giant green olives stuffed with cloves of garlic, but I know not everyone does and if someone doesn’t it’s not like a value judgement on olives. but still, I don’t think it’s too much to ask readers to consider that DFW may have had a sincere reason for using these techniques.

  2. August 11, 2009 at 11:17 am

    Ugh, I hate those olives, and it’s like their manufacturers just want to make me work more for my nourishment by making me deconstruct the sonovabitches. I mean, first, I have to open the jar, which I sometimes have to turn it upside down and bang its lid on the floor a few times to loosen it because it’s too tight. Then I have to either get my fingers all briny when I reach in to get an olive, or I have to get up and get a fork, which is just a little antagonistic if you ask me. Couldn’t the olive packagers have like included a little olive fork attached to the jar? And after all that, what if I want to eat the olives and the garlic separately? I’m more of a garlic man than an olive man, so I’d prefer to have a slightly higher garlic-to-olive ratio than the default packaging affords me. The truth is that I really do want to try to eat these garlicky olives because it’s just one of those things one does (how can I feel like a connoisseur of olives and/or garlic if I don’t manage to gulp a few of these down, however distastefully?), and after all, I’ve kind of gone on the record here about olives, so there’s really no turning back or admitting that the olives just aren’t my thing. But those olive makers? God, they’re such assholes.

  3. Ben
    August 11, 2009 at 11:22 am

    I’d have to say I disagree with both you and Klein. Note 216 is just a plain old silly joke, comedic relief if you like. And I found it rather amusing — one of my favourites footnotes, actually, even refreshing after reading some of the denser, ponderous ones. Lighten up, people.

  4. August 11, 2009 at 11:36 am

    wow you turned that into like a perfect homeric extended metaphor. but seriously, about olives, trader joes makes some with a pretty high garlic:olive ratio. they’re absolutely delicious but no one who sees me eat them believes me because they’re so strong that i can’t help but wince and make faces.

  5. August 11, 2009 at 11:36 am

    Ben, I agree that it’s also a gag. There’s a similar gag regarding some family nickname for Hal (I don’t think we ever learn what it is). I like both of these as gags. But if you look into the whole Coatlicue thing, it’s clear that there are some ties between that myth and the story. So while agreeing with you that it’s a funny gag, I’m going to continue to maintain my position that the note has the second purpose of inviting you to look outside the text for more insight into the text.

  6. August 11, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    Yesterday in class, one of my students remarked that Camus’ The Fall was “rather tedious.” To be sure, The Fall is a surprising addition to Camus’ oeuvre, given its complex and opaque narration and self-referentiality via The Stranger. I explained, nonetheless, that the student’s missive was enclosed in an envelope clearly marked ‘Return to Sender,’ as it told us more about her than about the novella.

    I don’t know EK, but to give him the benefit of the doubt I’d like to express a confidence that, if he ever looks back on that post in 5 or 10 years he will be very, very embarrassed. I have written things in a frenzy of youthful impetuosity and short-sightedness that I still feel rather badly about, and I expect that another 10 years will result in similar judgments regarding some of my current writings.

    More generally about whingers, I have to say it’s like none of them have ever read any philosophy. A text gives back only in some variable ratio to what one puts in. Kant, Hume, or Locke? Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Husserl? Habermas, Rawls, Jameson, Foucault? Kierkegaard wrote pseudonymously – oh, how annoying and selfish of him. Germans reputedly prefer to read Kant’s First Critique in the Kemp English translation – oh, he doesn’t care about the reader. Foucault traces the external sign systems of dusty psychiatric accounts – oh, he’s making me do all the work here.

    • August 11, 2009 at 2:25 pm

      Well said. I distinctly remember attending a Governor’s School summer program thing when I was a kid with a bad attitude (I really had no business being there). A philosophy instructor made us watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and write a paper. I wrote a snyde little thing about how stupid I thought it was. I still sort of choke on straight philosophy (I cringe to admit), but I sure wish I could take that essay back. The instructor wrote a note on it about how maybe one day I’d mature enough to be able to appreciate such things, and I guess he was right (at least to a degree).

  7. August 11, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    I had a running list of words I had to look up when I read IJ, and I used to obsessively seek out the largest dictionary I could find in any library I happened to enter to look up the (apparently non-existent) definition of “ascapartic.” (It seems to be a word DFW made up based on some obscure legend about a giant.) This was all part of the fun of reading the book (or anything by DFW), though occasionally I would grumble at having to write down yet another word on my ever-growing list.

    The endnotes… no, the whole experience of reading IJ is a series of challenges that get you immersed in what you’re doing. And, once you start with the eye-rolling, the various ticks and indulgences and demands and so forth are going to become less and less enjoyable and more and more tedious. (I think it’s kind of remarkable that Avery has had the change of heart that she did.) I think endnote 216 was great, but I loved the whole experience (with all its attendant exasperation) and reading them. It seems that one simply brought out his own ire at having to invest in the particular way that IJ demands.

    Or, what Infinite Tasks said.

  8. Matt Guthrie
    August 11, 2009 at 9:14 pm

    Re: Infinitetasks:

    Both my German girlfriend and our mutual friend who is a German philosophy professor do indeed say that Kant is much easier in English. I don’t know enough about either German or Kant as to be able to articulate why.

    • August 12, 2009 at 1:00 am

      Archaic German. Twisted formulations (it’s tough to make language fit new ideas, after all… cf. Husserl & Heidegger). Excellent translation. Multilingual Germans. ‘Preciate the source confirmation!

  9. August 12, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    I fail to understand how anyone can come to have even the most rudimentary understanding or appreciation of the story without reading the endnotes. I’ve never tried reading something the wrong way on purpose, so maybe there’s something to it, but it truly boggles the old noggin that there’s any point in such a hollow exercise. So when I’m done with IJ I’ll try reading only every third word of The Great Gatsby and will then read 1984 phonetically backwards.

    What I’m saying is yeah, let the mirth begin over the bizarre somersaults people are doing in order to escape the hard but rewarding work involved in reading this book.

  10. August 12, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    I’m a little behind so I’ve still got the Marathe/Steeply conversation in which they both presume to “know” the other stuck in my mind. But maybe, after 500 pages, Wallace decided to insert that footnote, knowing that it would lead some people to look up a reference that, while similar enough to the story to make people think about it, probably has nothing to actually do with the story itself. That is (like Avril’s unexplained pet-names for Orin in the letter she writes him, in footnote 110), Wallace wants the word to just be the word (a cigar as a cigar), but invites you–since you’ll be drawing weird Sign/Signifier connections in any case–to make it into whatever you’re willing to put in to it. It’s even funnier because the narrator’s essentially saying that he’s NOT willing to bother . . . so why are you?

    • August 12, 2009 at 4:20 pm

      Also entirely possible. Or it could just be some random harebrained thing Rusk is hung up on that has no real significance to the story. Still, the whole mother-death-cosmos thing Detox brought up in his post…

  11. August 13, 2009 at 10:08 pm

    Game. Set. Match.

  12. Susan Marleau
    August 18, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    I thought note 216 was hysterical, but I also thought that Rusk had just made the word up. I guess I’m going to have to look it up…

  13. August 18, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    Susan: Or you could read my probably overzealous investigation of the word at https://infinitezombies.wordpress.com/2009/08/09/coatlicue/

    🙂

  1. August 12, 2009 at 12:47 am

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