I have this ambitious (probably crazy) plan of re-reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and making my own ‘reader’s guide’ to try to examine just why and how it is a masterpiece. Often I read novels carelessly and miss connections or subtleties. This novel represents the ultimate challenge for a more attentive study. It is something I started and set aside a few years back and this is the preamble I wrote at the time:
Infinite Jest was written in 1996 and is, by any standards, a big novel. It stretches to 981 pages with a further 96 pages of footnotes to push it beyond the 1000 mark. Footnote is probably a misnomer since many are more than just clarifications or references. One (110) runs to 17 pages. So, it’s not a novel you’d pick up lightly or cast aside easily (unless you wanted to do someone an injury!).
It is a definitive example of a genre of contemporary fiction that British critic James Wood memorably calls “hysterical realism”. In this category he also places U.S. heavyweight writers Thomas Pynchon & Don Delillo and British post-colonialist authors Salman Rushdie & Zadie Smith. Wood writes:
“Storytelling has become a kind of grammar in these novels; it is how they structure and drive themselves on. The conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, and overworked”
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With some relief, I have finally come to end of another term of teaching English as a foreign language at Bologna University.
How to end courses on a positive note is always an issue for me. I dislike scheduling an end of course test for the final lesson, preferring to get this out of the way beforehand.
In this way, I can set aside the last class to include a kind of ‘where can you go from here’ pep talk.
My model for this kind of address is David Foster Wallace’s amazing ‘this is water’ talk at South Kenyon college. Brilliant as this speech was, there’s also something reassuring about the fact that the students who heard his talk were not immediately in awe of Wallace’s brilliance.
I am happy if my more humble speech avoids sounding too pompous or obvious.
On the whole, I probably need to include more humour. For better or worse, here’s what I said [my bracketed comments were added afterwards]:
“Nowadays, it’s common to hear people talking about life-long learning.
[I ask who has heard of lifelong learning – nobody has!]
One time, there was the mistaken idea that when you finished school or university, your official period of learning was finished – your next goal was directed solely to working and earning a living.
Learning is not a finite thing. In one sense it never ends.
[The students look as though they are thinking: ‘Where is all this leading? / Does he think we’re dumb?]
People who remain curious about the world are, in my view, those who are most alive.
Learning a language is a very particular case.
[The students look as though they are thinking: ‘He DOES think we’re dumb’]
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David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College has long been a holy text for me; something I turn to when I need to be reminded that learning is so much more than the ability to memorize and regurgitate facts.
As DFW states, “the real value of education has nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with simple awareness”.
It’s good to see that this will now be reaching a wider audience , albeit in an abridged form, thanks to California-based video company The Glossary. View full article »