The halfway mark?

I began this journey nearly six months ago with the lofty[1] goal of reading all of David Foster Wallace’s books in the course of one calendar year and blogging about the experience.  Approaching the midpoint of the year, I thought it appropriate to pause momentarily and reflect on my progress.  At this point in the year I should have read about 2000 pages, or the equivalent of reading Infinite Jest one and three-quarters times; I’ve read 487 and only completed two books from my original list.[2] So at first glance, it would appear that I’ve got a lot of catching up to do over the summer.  But before casting stones, let us consider a few things:

First, the lame excuses.  Throughout much of the first quarter of this year I was dealing with severe migraines and accompanying vertigo.  My doctors were trying to get me on the right medications, which wasn’t always going well; and I missed a lot of work during those months, which caused me to fall behind in grading and other schoolwork.  And in the midst of that I had 90 students to prepare for the AP Literature exam.  So the combination of not feeling well and the pressure of the May 6 exam date prevented me from giving adequate time to this Letters Project.

But on the other hand, starting this project has opened up a whole lot more than the 4003 pages I originally planned on reading.  David Lipsky’s book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, came out in April and required immediate attention.  And curiosity led me to find a number of DFW’s short stories and essays that were published originally in magazines and then later online.  So even though I have yet to crack open Infinite Jest, I haven’t exactly been asleep at the wheel… or keyboard.

As I reflect on these last six months, I see that I had no idea what I was getting myself into back in January.  Starting the Letters to DFW blog project has opened up doors and opportunities I never would have imagined when I began.  Researching Dave’s life and writing led me to find fellow students of his work through the Howling Fantods website and Wallace-l discussion board.  This community has challenged my thinking and my writing as we have discussed Dave’s works.  I’ve found like-minded individuals who share my love of reading and writing about great prose.

Additionally, working on this project has expanded my own writing as I have experimented with elements of style and voice.[3] In reading Dave’s essays and stories, I have come to see the world around me and those who inhabit it a little differently.  And in writing about those essays and stories, and attempting to mimic his style and tone, I have come closer to finding my own written voice.  I have struggled to find just the right words to say exactly what I mean to say, and I have worked to connect ideas and thoughts that I had never before connected.

I recently read Zadie Smith’s essay on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.  In her discussion of “Forever Overhead” she writes about how Dave uses a second person narrator[4] to engage the reader.  All of his writing – and this short story is the perfect example – is not about society or culture, but about us – the reader – as a part of that society.  We are flawed individuals living in a flawed society.  He uses his writing as a sort of mirror in which we can see ourselves a little more clearly.

Reading Dave’s work has allowed me to see the world – and see myself – a little more clearly.  Writing about his work has challenged me to better articulate what it is I see.

So in these first six months things have not gone as planned, but I am better for having come this far.  I can’t wait to see what lies ahead.

[1] I see now that what was once called a lofty goal was more of a delusion of grandeur.  I was young and naïve and really had no idea what I was getting myself into at the time.

[2] Although, it is probably cheating to count the 144 pages of the gift book edition of This is Water.  The bootleg version I found online, when copied into a Word document, comes to about eight pages, depending on the font size and margin settings.

[3] Attempting to master the footnote has been my most ambitious undertaking.  I’ve made some progress, but am still far behind the Master.

[4] The first couple sentences of the story threw me for a loop.  I hadn’t seen a second-person narrator used since reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book as a kid.  But after getting past the initial shock, I found it very engaging.


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