Review – Mendel’s Dwarf, by Simon Mawer

I can’t imagine how hard it must be to write convincing, accurate, and compelling historical fiction. Not only is the author tasked with imagining the inner thoughts of important historical figures and their interactions with other characters (fictionalized or not), but also has to develop a broader narrative and overarching plot and maintain a balance between entertaining and informing the reader.

In my view, the best historical fiction manages to confound the reader into blurring the lines between the historical facts and the supplemental fiction, and to provide a glimpse into the life, time period, and/or broader importance of the subject matter. While even the best history books can at times be a slog, historical fiction, if done well, can combine the page-turning qualities of the best fiction with the authoritative and informative nature of non-fiction.

Mendel’s Dwarf, by Simon Mawer, is the second historical fiction book recommended to me by my grandfather (whose recommendations quickly move to the top of my to-read pile). The first, The Spinoza Problem, by Irving Yalom, used Baruch Spinoza’s life to provide a window into his works and broader philosophy, and introduces the reader to the influential Nazi thinker Alfred Rosenberg. The “problem” was Spinoza himself: Spinoza was both one of history’s greatest minds, and a Jew, which presented an inherent conflict to the Nazi ideology of aryan supremacy and the inferiority of the Jew. The existence of Spinozan thought stood in the way of Hitler’s propagation of his hateful and dubious ideology. The book was a worthy introduction to Spinoza, who played a minor role in the book himself, for the most part serving as a posthumous foil for the Rosenberg and the Nazis.

Mendel’s Dwarf follows a similar format to The Spinoza Problem, using the life and work of Gregor Mendel, who introduced the world to the concept of probability- and trait-based heredity through his study of the pea plant, and is known as the father of genetics. To highlight the importance of Mendel’s work, and its relevance today, the author introduces the character Benedict Lambert, a modern day (but fictionalized) genetics professor who is supposedly related to Mendel (thereby carrying some part of Mendel’s genes), and who also happens to be a “little person,” or dwarf. This irony is hardly disguised by the author: Lambert is a victim of genetics.

The book does an admirable job of putting us inside the mind of Professor Lambert, who makes it his life’s mission to identify the specific gene within the genetic code responsible for achondroplasia (dwarfism). Along the way, he struggles with the realities of his condition on his life as he navigates a world designed for the “average,” normal person.

The book intersperses the life of Lambert with visits inside Mendel’s mind and to the Czech abbey where he devoted himself to the life of an Augustinian friar. There, he found and carried out his life’s obsession: the growing, experimenting, and cataloging of the pea plant. Over decades, Mendel grew thousands of variations of the plant to devise his probability-based heredity hypothesis that have become ubiquitous in high school biology classrooms everywhere.

What the novel does incredibly well is juxtapose the humble origins of genetics with its wide-reaching and fraught applications through history. Through asides scattered throughout, the book takes us through the history of genetics (and its harmful relative eugenics), including the concept of nature versus nurture and other heredity-based hypotheses that served as justifications for the subjugation and murder of millions of people in Nazi Europe and the Soviet Union, as well as anti-immigration and racist beliefs based on false scientific premises that persist to this day. The author addresses these topics, as well as the more sensitive and evolving question of pre-selection associated with in-vitro fertilization, through the book’s main plot line as well.

While some concepts, such as the screening for identifiable genetic diseases and conditions in the prenatal stage, have become uncontroversial, if not standard procedure throughout the developed world, other practices seemingly pulled from the pages of science fiction, such as selecting a baby’s sex, skin or hair color, or height, remain ethically dubious. The book does a great job of shining a light on these topics, proving a modern day application of Mendel’s work and the study of genetics.

At times, the book gets a bit technical and throws around unnecessary scientific jargon, but is for the most part accessible. Also, the book is incredibly sexual (perhaps intentionally, given the “breeding” inherent to the study of genetics), but I’d definitely steer anyone liable to blush from mild sexual content away from this book.

On the whole, Mendel’s Dwarf provides a strong introduction to the history and study of genetics, which is about as much as one can ask from a book of scientific / historical fiction.

Review – Albert Wenger’s World After Capital – The Knowledge Age, and economic, informational, and psychological freedom

Over the weekend, I listened to Patrick O’Shaughnessy’s enlightening conversation with Albert Wenger, a partner at Union Square Ventures and the author of the recent book World After Capital. Over the course of the conversation, Wenger explains the core of his book’s idea: comparing the past transition from the agrarian age to the industrial age, to the current transition he argues we are undergoing: the transition from the industrial age to what he dubs “the knowledge age.”

In the transition from the agrarian age to the industrial age, the role of “capital” changed: whereas land, and the ability to dole it out, use it, sell it, etc. was the primary mode of capital in the agrarian age, the advent of the industrial age resulted in a transition from land to “financial capital.” Financial capital became essential to “manage the timing of cash flows,” i.e., how to finance the payment of inputs in order to allow for sufficient lead time to turn those inputs into an output via an industrial process. Whereas the previous holders of power in the agrarian age were the royalty and the landed aristocracy who were given land in exchange for their obedience, the holders of capital became the power center in the industrial age. Even today, the world’s richest currently set a great deal of the global political agenda and either rise to political prominence themselves, or leave their benefactors beholden to their capital-drive aims (see: Bloomberg, Soros, Mercer, etc.)

Wenger argues that a defining element of the industrial age was the costs associated with industrial activity and the manufacture of products — one cannot just start their own factory without upfront financial costs, and each variable / incremental unit of production has an attributable cost associated with it – i.e., a book still has the cost of paper and printing for every copy. We’ve now reached an age, however, where our primary mode of activity shifting towards becoming mostly digital in nature, and the attributable costs to a single unit of production, say, the cost of solving a difficult mathematics problem by a computer, has become negligible to the point of being nearly zero. As a result, the role of capital as a means to finance the production of digital goods and services has diminished, leaving a vacuum in the future “power” equation, and creating a society where there is significantly less human “labor” required for a comparable amount of wealth.

Wenger dubs this transition, and the new age, which he argues we’re already in the midst of experiencing, “the end of capital,” and in turn, the beginning of the “knowledge age.” Wenger sees the need for a global universal basic income as a key outcome of this “end of capital,” providing economic freedom to citizens, potentially using blockchain technology as a means of facilitating this wealth transfer. As a result of the removal of the accumulation of capital and enrichment of corporations as a primary motivation behind employment, he predicts that people will be driven towards seeking out “purpose” in a broader, humanistic sense: the combatting of climate change, promoting global peace and ending hunger, etc.

In Wenger’s knowledge age, human attention, i.e., what we, as individuals, choose to spend our time on, has become the new scarcity, replacing land in the agrarian age and capital in the industrial age. This conception of the informational freedom, and constraints on human attention, has come to light significantly recently in the wake of the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica scan, which seems to have provoked a realization on the part of the internet-going public that much of the internet’s business model revolves around capitalizing on your attention span and the collection of “data,” both of which are paid for by advertisers (Antonio Garcia Martinez Chaos Monkeys is a great overview of Facebook’s entrance into the advertiser marketplace, and others have long attempted to warn us). The onus to control our attention, and manage our consumption habits, is on us, as citizens, to push back on this intrusion into our attention spans, to make these digital universes (e.g., Apple, Google, Facebook) “work for us,” in Wenger’s words. In this world, there seems to be a stark divide between the obedient, who continue to use these modes of communication and information consumption blindly, and people who seek power over the internet, their smartphones, and this deluge of information at our fingertips – which Wenger dubs “information freedom.” The book and conversation seem well-timed to the current Facebook situation, but in fact this encroaching into our personal, political, and intellectual lives has long been a concern.

The last aspect of Wenger’s solution to the “World After Capital” is psychological freedom, i.e., how to train our brains to deal with the economic and information freedom that the knowledge age provides. Wenger explains informational and psychological freedoms as follows in the podcast:

“Informational freedom is about how to get this supercomputer in my pocket to for me, primarily, and for the Facebook, Googles, Apples, etc. secondarily, and psychological freedom is […] about getting yourself away from systems that are designed by people who are trying to get as much of your attention as possible, they employ trained psychologists for ‘what is the right amount of nudges’.

If you are not investing heavily in your own ability to put your phone away, put it on do not disturb, do not look at it at all, if you don’t invest in your ability of reading something online and you’d don’t immediately write back in all caps, or hit the retweet button without thinking, like, does that even make any sense? Should I try and click through this link to try and form an opinion? As long as we’re operating on these “mindless” brains, without engaging our rational capabilities, then I think you can have as much economic freedom as you want, as much informational freedom, and you will not be free.”

In some ways, I think this is the most important facet of Wenger’s thinking, and something worth putting into practice well before any sort of universal basic income arrives. Beyond the disclosures made in the wake of the current Cambridge Analytica scandal, the internet- and social media-based work of researchers at University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center, Cambridge University’s Well-Being Institute, and others have long been financed by British and American intelligence agencies and defense contractors. As with much innovation, the military is ahead of the curve, and has sought to understand the advent of social media and online consumption on individual’s mood, sense of broader well being or happiness, and of course, your participation and/or obedience in society. In this new world, the information you consume, and the ability to analyze it critically, skeptically, and logically, will only continue to increase in importance as our sources of information continue to shrink and the broad proliferation of differing and unique opinions continue to decline.

Of course, not every single consumption habit you choose should be assen as a political statement, but I do think that Wenger’s point has resonance: that we’ve let the internet evolve to a stage where we’ve, for the most part, become passive participants subject ot the designs and manipulations of a select few. In our day-to-day lives, I believe an appropriate response to this is to try and implement controls and restrictions that control for some of  of this blind consumption, that places your critical reactions and emotional well-being first and foremost, and prioritizing this consumption and healthy habits associated with continued development and learning. This podcast certainly motivated me to rethink this, and believe that there will only be more benefits to implementing these habits as more revelations come to pass on the Facebook saga (see: Andrew Ross Sorkin’s take on Facebook’s published apology: “there is more to come,”) and in turn the internet’s attempts to monopolize your attention become even more subvert and indiscernible.

Review – Crush It!, and Getting Things Done

Those of you who know me personally know that I like to read a balance of “business” books and literature. In the past month, I have read two business books that have provided me with differentiating levels of call-to-action inspiration.

Above all, the two have substantiated the claim that with most business books, value exists in the expediency in which they are read relative to their date of publication[1]. As such, one of the tangible calls-to-action that I can take away from this experience is the importance of keeping up-to-date with the most recent business books. If anything, this goes almost directly against the commonly-held adage of reading the “classics” of literature, a statement that I plan on following up on in an ensuing post. Two of this year’s blockbusters, Jeff JarvisWhat Would Google Do? and Chris Anderson‘s Free created seismic tremors across the blogosphere around their publication dates, complete with comments and followups by the authors themselves. While reading these books today would still enable you a wealth of additional resources, reviews, and discussions online, the ability to promote your opinions within the public forum has more or less disappeared as the enthusiasm of book’s release and subsequent press dissipates [2].

Gary Vaynerchuk’s Crush It! reads as a veritable account of one man’s rise to success leveraging the world of social media through passion and hustle. The book reads more like a long blog post than a book: complete with tons of links and references to online tools. This is by no means an insult: Gary Vee will be the first person to tell you that writing is far from his forte, and I’ve gained plenty from my daily Google Reader visits. Obviously, there is no way to currently account for the disparity between the current print market and the ability to hyperlink, an issue that I think is universally acknowledged as something that will be addressed as technology progresses.

Vaynerchuk begins the book by offering readers a history of his entrepreneurial exploits: shoveling snows in his preteen years progressed into selling baseball cards at trade markets, which flourished as he matured into an adult through his undying passion and love for the family business: wine. In doing this, Vaynerchuk has created a legitimacy to his grandiose claims: he truly walks the walk. Gary Vee has an almost intuitive sense of the webspace, providing readers with an elementary blueprint of the world of social media while referencing countless bloggers, whom I imagine have no relationship with the author himself, to bolster his thesis. From the beginning of the book, Gary admits that the purpose of his now infamous website,, was never about selling wine, rather about building brand equity around his love for wine. Crush It! does almost the same thing for social media by exposing the virtues of WordPress, Tumblr, Flickr, and Twitter to unfamiliar readers, giving them the tools to crush it themselves. Amazingly, discussing this book with fellow cohorts, I got the sense that the average college student has no conception of these tools, despite the fact that our generation should theoretically be most in tune with the technology.

Vaynerchuk is a strong proponent of the “death of the résumé,” explaining that your online body of work presents itself as a much greater case for employment than any “tidy list of where you’ve worked and for how long.” I think Gary hits the nail on the head with this assertion. He continues “developing your personal brand is the same thing as living and breathing your résumé every second that you’re working.” Unfortunately, the powers that be within the undergraduate business curriculum continue to exult the virtues of the résumé: they are just as out of touch as the corporate recruiters scrutinizing a stack of uniform CVs [3]. Every potential internship I’m pursuing requires a resume. However, as Gary Vee himself preaches, patience pays, and I will continue to produce content on my blog and elsewhere to bolster my virtual portfolio.

David Allen’s Getting Things Done has long been considered “the” productivity method by respected bloggers and friends alike. Although I consider myself to be a fairly productive individual, I was intrigued enough to pick up a copy of the manual. Allen slowly builds the reader up to implementing his system, encouraging readers to only execute the portions of his method that work for the individual.

The book itself was written in 2001, and shows heavy sign of age as a result. Had Allen written an updated version, I have no doubt that he would update his process to create a more seamless, technology-based system incorporating scanners and one of the many task managing web apps available today [4]. Obviously, neither of these things were fiscally available for the average reader in 2001, and as such, were omitted from the book.

I cannot wholly recommend this book to my generation, as I think that Allen himself would retort that the book is not intended for younger people. One aspect that I took especially to heart, however, dealt with managing long term goals with more dynamic, day-to-day requirements of a student. At one portion of the book, Allen suggests his readers devote a single piece of paper for each “project” you’d like to develop further (whether it be tomorrow, next week, or next year.) After hitting a road block early on, I ended up with somewhere around 50 different, individuals goals and projects on 50 different pieces of paper, all of which I’d like to complete. Allen goes on to provide the reader with a method to categorize the projects, as well as a system for keeping up with them. Obviously, it’s too early to tell if the aspects of Allen’s system I’ve incorporated into my own routine will prove fruitful, but if my frequency of posts suddenly increases exponentially, you’ll know something is working.

[1] Obviously, there are some notable exceptions: books that have managed to permeate the overarching ethos of business. Of the top of my head, Liar’s Poker, The Black Swan, and The Tipping Point are three examples of this.
[2] A word to the wise: keep abreast of the waiting lists for new books at your local library.
[3] Albeit in different shades of white
[4] Google Tasks does the trick for me, although I’ve heard good things about Remember the Milk.

Review – Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays

Yes, another post about David Foster Wallace. I preface this post by emphatically promising that this will be my last DFW-related post for a while (maybe.)

David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays, is a collection of essays written over a ten year period. Like Infinite Jest, the essays are not in chronological order, rather, they are deliberately ordered for maximum effect and efficiency. Similar to Chuck Klosterman’s IV, publications as varied as Harper’s, The Village Voice, and Gourmet hired the services of David Foster Wallace as a freelance journalist, seeking a DFW-esque touch on their magazine through his book reviews, events, and essays.

Consider the Lobster was my second exposure to David Foster Wallace, after a lengthy experience reading DFW’s Infinite Jest. Attributes of DFW’s writing have become increasingly clear as I continue to work my way through his oeuvre: transparency between his life and his work, literary segues in the form of lengthy footnotes, and an incredible attention to grammatical precision. However, one resounding difference I was surprised to find was that I learned much more about David Foster Wallace in Consider the Lobster, a collection of nonlinear essays, than Infinite Jest, seemingly a personalized piece of fiction.

First and foremost, David Foster Wallace was a firmly entrenched, anti-establishment provocateur. This is more than apparent from his finished products, shown pre-publication in their unedited and unadulterated form throughout Consider the Lobster. In 2004, the now-defunct Gourmet magazine hired DFW to cover the Maine Lobster Festival, one of the largest regional culinary festivals in the United States. Very little coverage ensued surrounding the actual festival. Instead, DFW filled 7 full, text-laden magazine pages (19 in its Consider the Lobster‘s pre-edited form) providing his personal views on mass tourism [1], before wrestling with the ethics of killing lobsters, going so far as to reference the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA.) Gourmet‘s readers, whom I imagine enjoy their lobster, as well as other ethically-questionable culinary vices from time-to-time, were met with a literary “punch-in-the-gut,” so effective in its argument that I, a carnivore, will be hard pressed to enjoy the crustacean in the near future. Rolling Stone tapped DFW to cover John McCain’s 2000 Presidential campaign, hoping for (I imagine) a finished product similar to Hunter S. Thompson’s coverage of George McGovern’s 1972 bid for Democratic nomination [2]. Instead, what Rolling Stone received was a staggering account, in which Wallace manages to extol his reverence towards the “techs” of the various network news outfits, while purposely distancing himself from the rest of the mainstream media covering the campaign. In fact, the draft which DFW submitted to Rolling Stone would, by his own admission, “take up most of Rolling Stone‘s text-space and might even cut into the percentage of the magazine reserved for advertisements,” In both instances, I chuckle at the thought of the editors of their respective magazines receiving drafts from DFW, hoping for an inspired piece of journalism on the topic-in-question, obviously aghast when receiving something that so obviously strayed from their initial intentions.

Secondly, David Foster Wallace casts himself as an everyman: a champion of the blue-collar American. At several points in the book, DFW goes out of his way to poke fun at aristocracy, old money, and “yachty” culture, while espousing the virtues of the working class. From “his anything-but-New York-intellectual author photo” on, DFW makes no attempt to shield his readers from his own political, philosophical, and societal beliefs [4.] The most profound example of this is found in the longest essay of the book, a 67-page “review” of a dictionary, Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern America. During this essay, DFW manages to cast a dichotomy between the different dialects found within the English language, including (but not limited to,) “Black English, Latino English, Rural Southern, Urban Southern, Standard Upper-Midwest, Maine Yankee, East-Texas Bayou, [and] Boston Blue-Collar [5].” DFW then segues to his personal experience as a professor, in which he recounts a speech he’s often given to black students who were ” (a) bright and inquisitive as hell and (b) deficient in what US higher education considers written English facility [5].” The speech itself is inherently incendiary: he begins by explaining the dichotomy of American dialects seen above, before informing the student-in-question the difference between Standard Black English (SBE,) their “native” dialect, and Standard Written English (SWE), the dialect used in college English classes. Professor Wallace proceeds to concede that while SWE could be interpreted as Standard White English (still, SWE), as it was developed and largely enforced by educated white people, “anybody of any race, ethnicity, religion, or gender who wants to succeed in American culture has got to be able to use SWE.” By no means is this recounted dialogue remotely PC, and DFW cedes that he’s received an official university complaint as a result of his diatribe. However, DFW makes a point to include these personal experiences on his readers, in turn imparting his personal societal philosophies upon them concurrently. Remember this all stemmed from a book review, of a dictionary, no less.

I’ve made no secret of my personal feelings towards David Foster Wallace as a full-blown literary genius. In past posts, I’ve additionally explored the nature of genius, before concluding there is no resolute definition of genius. DFW and I seemingly shared this extended interest in the nature of genius, a nature that David Foster Wallace explicitly explores in the form of several character studies during Consider the Lobster. Out of the ten essays that collectively compile Consider the Lobster, at least three of these essays directly deal with individuals that DFW himself to be geniuses [6]: Tracy Austin’s prodigious techné in the sport of Tennis, Bryan A. Garner’s comprehensive grammatical prowess, and Dostoevsky’s unrivaled literary mastery. For those of you keeping score at home, the three individuals DFW coins as geniuses overlap with three major themes of DFW’s life: Tennis, grammar, and literature. Again, DFW makes no attempt to hide this transparency from his readers.

I believe that there is, and will never be, any need for a biographical account of David Foster Wallace, as his literary style is such that reading his body of work chronologically would prove more telling than any author’s attempt to chronicle DFW’s life. Witness DFW’s 1996 essay, Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky, a review of Stanford professor and Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank’s collection of Dostoevsky biographies, an account of 60 years (1821-1881) in the life of Dostoevsky, split amongst five seperate books, totalling 2,507 pages. Dostoevsky, of course, is the author of notoriously long-winded, unapproachable masterpieces such as The Idiot, The Brothers’ Karamazov, and Crime & Punishment [7]. Putting the implied effort of completeing this comprehensive body of work aside, DFW literally gushes his affection for Dostoevsky across the landscape of this essay. DFW marvels at Dostoevsky’s ability to create real-life characters and juicy stories, explaining to his readers that “Dostoevsky wrote fiction about the stuff that’s really important.” He proceeds to lament the current state of the literary world, ceding that emotionally powerful literature is no longer possible due to “certain cultural experctations that severely constrain our own novelists’ ability to be “serious.” [8]” DFW concludes

“So he – we, fiction writhers won’t (can’t) dare try to use serious art to advance idealologies. The project would be like Menard’s Quixote. People would either laugh or be embarassed for us. Given this (and this is a given), who is to blame for the unseriousness of our serious fiction? But they wouldn’t (could not) laugh if a piece of morally passionate, passionate moral fiction was also ingenious and radiantly human fiction. But how to make it that? How – for a writer today, even a talented writer today – to get up the guts to even try? There are no formulas or guarantees.”

Again, for those of you keeping score at home, this essay was written in 1996, the same year Infinite Jest, another notoriously long-winded, unapproachable masterpiece, was published.

[1] No surprise here. Wallace informs the reader that in his eyes, mass tourism “is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you,” and compares being a tourist to “becom[ing] economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.”
[2] Initially serialized in Rolling Stone in 1972, and later released as a book in early 1973 as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.
[3] “Up, Simba.” Consider the Lobster, and Other Essays. New York: Little, Brown, 2005. Print.
[4] The first essay of the book, Big Red Son, is an account of his experience at the Adult Video News, or AVN Awards. The 50-page essay chronicles the pornography industry’s biggest night and the surrounding fanfare which accompanies it in vividly vulgar detail, and is certainly not for anyone who places family values anywhere near the forefront of their consciousness.
[5] “Authority and American Usage.” Consider the Lobster, and Other Essays. New York: Little, Brown, 2005. Print.
[6] Albeit, in different lights
[7] I’m merely sticking these links in here as reference points. As I’ve never read Dostoevsky, I cannot submit to the efficacy of the links’ translations. Russian, as I’ve been made to understand, is a exceedingly difficult language to translate to English.
[8] “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky” Consider the Lobster, and Other Essays. New York: Little, Brown, 2005. Print.

Review – Infinite Jest

It’s ironic that my first blog review will be for a book that, for all intents and purposes, I have no right to review. David Foster Wallace’s behemoth of a novel, Infinite Jest, is certainly several wrungs above me intellectually, so utterly layered and complex that I imagine no one will truly ever fully pick apart the gamut of motifs, motives, and shrewd references that make up his opus[1].

I would preface this review by emphatically stressing that IJ is not for everyone: even a large portion of the minority who deem themselves exempt from this statement will quickly deduce that it’s not for them either. In order to save the reader from the obligatory digressions w/r/t the size and length of IJ (both of the novel + subsequent footnotes), I will merely point out that while I consider myself to be a reader of voracious appetite, the novel still took me ~3 months to complete[2].

That isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy reading Infinite Jest. I loved it. Infinite Jest managed to procure emotional response like no book I’ve read before. I laughed[3] and cried, all the while empathizing with the characters’ struggles with acceptance, achievement, and addiction.

My interest in conquering the opus was largely platonic, and I could have easily put down the book for good at any time, as many before me have. Unlike many whom I’ve spoken to in relation to the book, at no point did I experience a “crisis of faith” requiring perseverance, although I will concede that the book picks up dramatically following page 200. The novel spent 3 months at my side, and amassed a bevy of nicks, coffee stains, and page rips in the process that will no doubt prompt future reminiscence. Finishing the novel, as I did last week, was an extremely barren feeling which I’ve only experienced several times in my life, traditionally at the end of a beloved series[4]. I immediately began conducting extensive research[5] on Infinite Jest and David Foster Wallace, as any fan of mine on delicious is all too aware.

While Infinite Jest is coined a “postmodern novel” by literary scholars, I find it exponentially more cohesive than many other renowned contemporary novels. My experience reading the work of DFW’s postmodern contemporary, Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, was a much more disjointed and difficult experience, despite the fact that it checks in almost 300 pages fewer than IJ. Incidentally, both novels manage to freely travel back and forth through time, utilizing and incorporating a small army of main characters, narrators, and settings across each time period.

The largely inescapable fact is that Infinite Jest is inherently experience driven. Self indulgence permeates both the overarching themes and minute details[6] of the book. In Kottke’s guide for reading Infinite Jest, he suggests creating a dichotomy between the fiction of Infinite Jest and the life of David Foster Wallace. He argues that despite the obvious parallels between the two, correlating one with another would do a “disservice to its [IJ’s] thematic richness.” The question I’ve been struggling with deals with Infinite Jest as a self-indulgent piece of literature, and whether or not there’s anything wrong with that.

Infinite Jest-detractors contend that Infinite Jest’s self indulgence created an extremely uninviting novel. This self-indulgence, they argue, makes the barrage of seemingly unimportant events, digressions, and N.B.s that make up a significant portion of the novel “unreadable.” In turn, the readers develop no emotional attachment for the characters whom lend these tidbits to the reader. In fact, DFW detractors often hold more contempt for David Foster Wallace’s editor than for DFW himself.

Infinite Jest would lose a significant portion of its humor and charm without DFW’s unadulterated transparency. In reading Infinite Jest, I feel as if DFW has personally invited me into the inner sanctum of his brain, the cerebrum of a genius, no less. DFW’s depiction of addiction throughout the novel presents itself as some of the most affecting and visceral prose in the novel, prose that, had DFW not actually experienced first person, would not be as effective.

My admiration for David Foster Wallace is certainly no secret. In my eyes, DFW was truly a monster at his craft, reaching a truly “zen-like” synergy with the pen, as Hendrix with his guitar or Michael Jordan with a basketball. While I am often reticent to shell out the title of genius, I have no doubt that DFW fits the bill. I liken DFW’s penultimate decision of suicide with that of tortured geniuses such as Poe and Beethoven: men struggling to hone immense potential and talent.  DFW’s obsessive tendencies of grammar, attention to detail, and perfecting his craft, coupled with life-long depression and a buffet of powerful antidepressants, created an equation with a linear solution, one that led to his early and untimely demise.

David Foster Wallace is certainly not the first artist to impart his collective experience, to the point of self-indulgence, in his work[7]. Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, a film almost universally acknowledged as one of the greatest films of all time, is about a “fictional” internationally-renowned director and his struggle to cope with his creativity. The film often segues into dream-like sequences of the director’s childhood, which effectively acts as transparent catharticism for Fellini. While critical analysis ofoften spurs similar criticism, Fellini’s legacy lives on.

While the impact of Infinite Jest on contemporary American literature is subject to debate [8], I can unequivocally state that the novel created a personal, complex, and enriching three month experience. As I graduate onto DFW’s essays and non-fiction, I do so with the omnipresent knowledge that “DFW called himself a novelist, wanted to be remembered as a novelist, corresponded with novelists about the craft, labored for years over the 2.75 novels he managed to finish.” Though only 36.4%[9] through his fictional oeuvre, I can see why.

[1] Don’t believe me? Check out this interview with DFW done by Michael Silverblatt, in which DFW divulges that IJ was structured as a Sierpinski Gasket, which he goes on to explain is “very primitive kind of pyramidical fractal. a

a sic

[2] My reading habits only allow me to read one “novel” at a time. Blogs, Op-eds, and articles are exempt from Hirsch’s Law. (i.e. for three months, the only non-curricula, bound piece of literature I carried around with me was Infinite Jest.)

[3] Explaining my oft-leered-upon chuckles and spontaneous laughter reading alone at many a coffee shop. If I distracted you, I’m sorry.

[4] Harry Potter and The Wire (which apparently, DFW loved) automatically come to mind.

[5] No book reviews, however, which I’ve found cloud my judgment as time passes.

[6] Some of which are still being periodically unearthed as I continue my research. For example, Avril “the Moms” Incandenza of Infinite Jest, is the founder of the “Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts,” while DFW’s mother, a composition professor, was coined “a SNOOT a of the most rabid and intractable sort.” b

a SNOOT = “Grammar Nazi, Usage Nerd, Syntax Snobs, the Grammar Battalion, the Language Police”

b “Authority and American Usage.” Consider the Lobster, and Other Essays. New York: Little, Brown, 2005. Print.

[7] Chinese Democracy? Maybe another time.

[8] One, of many, criticisms of Infinite Jest. I chose this one because it’s one of the few that manages to create an argument without mentioning the book’s length.

[9] (1 / 2.75)