Saturday, July 02, 2011

Summer of Infinite Jest -- 4

My internet reading habits have become governed by an RSS feed, which collects a wide range of stuff from various authors or publications, or on various topics, and which I try to skim through every day. When I find something I want to read at length, I use a widget from to save it to read later. Then every couple of days I copy all the latest articles from my collection into a single MS Word document and then print that out. Then I finally read it all over the next day or two, away from the computer. It becomes a sort of self-edited magazine.

Last night in Infinite Jest I reached the chapter which opens with the fairly inane telephone conversation between Hal and Orin Incandenza and then goes on to include four "documents" such as an insurance company email about a wacky construction site accident and an essay of sorts about the introduction, wide adoption, adjustments to, and sudden consumer rejection of videophone technology. These documents are all on different subjects, written in a different style, and it struck me that reading them in succession is not unlike reading my printed-out articles from the RSS feed.

Here we see the author's playfulness, and that's the main thing I took away. The second thing was his willingness to go to exhaustive length about a subject, such as the essay about the adoption and subsequent rejection of "videophony." Its author explains at great length, employing the level of detail that only a geek, such as a "Lord of the Rings" geek, could muster about his chosen subject, while recounting something which is fairly obvious on its face (no one who is not a narcissist or an attractive teenager feels very comfortable using a webcam). Because of this, the essay could probably be cut to a third its length and lose almost nothing. So I conclude that the level of detail is the whole point. It's an exhibition of what it's like to know everything about one little corner of the universe, and happily explain it all to everyone.

That, of course, is why Wikipedia is such a success. There is someone like that for almost every subject in the world -- not just the obvious fan-focused topics such as LOTR or Star Trek. With a little study, I myself might be able to rustle up a pretty good critical essay on the early films of Wim Wenders.

But before Wikipedia, we had novels. Moby Dick, with its exhaustive description of 19th century whaling, is the obvious comparison. But the best novels always give readers a sense that they're learning a lot of important and -- this is very important -- authentic things about something. Readers of Shogun are, by the time they finish the tome, convinced they could get along pretty well in 17th century Japan. Even my mother's 85-year-old husband said to me last month: "I know some Japanese: kimasu. Because I read Shogun." I thought to myself, Hmm, to go? Probably not... Then, remembering the book and the Japanese word which is repeated over and over, I said "You mean wakarimasu -- to understand." And he agreed, yes, that was it.

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