I cannot remember a time when I did not gain pleasure and inspiration from reading books. As a child I would drink up the adventures of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Famous Five before riding my bike to the fields and glens close to my parent’s house to re-enact their exploits in my solitary play. When I was feeling down and friendless I would imagine myself to be a suffering heroine from a Frances Hodgson Burnett story, or find some aspect of my life to be glad over aka Eleanor H. Porter’s Pollyanna.
As a teenager I read Arthur Conan Doyle, C.S. Forester and Tolkien, imagining myself to have the courage, stamina, intelligence and power of their famous protagonists. Although I went through a short lived stage of reading trashy romances I could not relate to these books, comforting my oft hungry heart with music rather than literature. The books that I savoured took me to worlds that I knew I could never experience, they were the stuff of dreams.
As I have grown older I have become more picky about the books I will read. I fear that I have become something of a literary snob, not an attribute to be proud of. There is a fine line between choosing wisely from the plethora of available titles and condemning an entire genre. Who am I to say what constitutes a good book?
This question has reared it’s head recently. Having carefully researched many review sites I decided that I wished to read ‘Infinite Jest’ by David Foster Wallace. I was aware that it was long and complex but felt comfortable with the idea of tackling such a tome. The literary snob in me believed that I could cope and benefit from such a read.
Can a book be described as good if it is not enjoyed? In a little over a month I have struggled through a mere hundred pages of this novel. As an avid reader I am feeling starved, yet I cannot bring myself to spend long in the company of this book’s unpleasant characters. I recognise that this is rather the point of the plot, but to me that point is questionable when it becomes so hard to enter the world described.
I am a monogamous reader by habit. I will plough through a Great Work of Literature for the personal satisfaction of having read it. ‘Infinite Jest’ is, however, making me question my usual resolve. I am hungry for the escape that books give me, for the feeling of satisfaction that a good story provides.
This weekend I finally succumbed to temptation and allowed myself to stray. I picked up a book recommended by my daughter, John Green’s ‘The Fault in Our Stars’. Oh my. I was thirsty for a good book and I found an oasis. I read it cover to cover in two sittings. I cannot remember the last time, if ever, that a book has made me cry.
It is a love story, which is not my usual choice of genre. It is about two young ‘cancer survivors’ but does not seek out sympathy, nor dwell unnecessarily on the pathos of their situation. It’s use of language is magnificent.
I love the lead female, her honesty and ability to put into words what she is thinking without glossing over the truth. I love the lead male for appearing real, with his love of computer games, bad driving, and for appreciating the girl’s attributes. What really sets the book apart for me though is how easy it is to read whilst relinquishing none of the depth of feeling, time or place. I was there with them, rooting for them, despite knowing how hopeless the outcome had to be.
“There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There’s 0.1 and 0.12 and 0.112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities […] I am grateful for our little infinity. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.”
This was a book where every word deserved to be there, was needed and served a purpose. There was nothing gratuitous, voyeuristic or pretentious. The author was not trying to show how clever, astute or sagacious he could be. His story climbed inside me and made me care. The use of language was sublime.
And all of this is, of course, just my opinion. To gain the reviews that it did, ‘Infinite Jest’ must have impressed many readers. Perhaps I am just not intelligent enough for it; perhaps it is simply not a book for me. There may be satisfaction in ploughing through to the end of a worthy work of esteemed literature. I am stubborn and am likely to keep trying to work my way through simply because I do not like to admit defeat.
In terms of recommendations though, ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ has blown me away. I wish to savour this intimacy before I move on. Perhaps if you have read it you will understand.