This is, absolutely, the best book I have ever read in my life. The best. I say that without hyperbole or irony, acknowledging that it makes me sound like a mindless Wallace drone, that there are plenty of people out there and amongst us who pick the most pretentious, reader-hostile books to fawn over because of the very fact of their pretension and hostility to the reader. I accept their association, because it is worth it.
This book is as hard to read as people say it is. It is famously difficult for a reason. It is long; it is dense; and Wallace is actively challenging you but not out of hostility. I came to the book knowing what it was, already loving Wallace, and wanting very much to read this book, and even still it took more than one heroic exercise of will to keep reading. But I did, because sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is something your body very much doesn’t want to do.
Why should you read it? Let’s consider it’s difficulty. Let’s consider the most famous aspect of its difficult: the endnotes. Over a hundred pages of endnotes. Is there anything more tedious and inconvenient than having to flip back and forth to read what are at times trivial medical definitions and at other times major plot points? It is tedious. And it is inconvenient. It’s a gimmick, and one that makes an already cumbersome book more difficult to stay focused on. But let’s also consider that this is a book about entertainment and that David Foster Wallace’s greatest dread was that we go through life unengaged, passive, only looking to satisfy easy pleasures. And let’s consider that the book is about addiction, both narcotic and alcoholic, and that Wallace felt a deep and personal connection with the people he met whilst researching it and that their daily lives are one tedious and inconvenient thing after another, that if they relax for even one moment they could slip past the event horizon of a black hole so hideously and unthinkably deep that it takes the constant threat of death and ruin to make anyone endure the kind of program and withdrawal and humbling misery that is necessary to convince them to claw away from its edge. But they do. Let’s consider them and then think again about how difficult it is to flip back and forth in a book.
I’m almost afraid to say anything more, afraid of coming off way too strong, of sounding like an over-aggressive salesman. I probably already do, probably after the first sentence. But, as much as this sounds like just a rhetorical posture, and as much of a rhetorical posture it is to say that this sounds like just a rhetorical posture, this isn’t just a rhetorical posture. Maybe you have to already know me to believe me. I already loved David Foster Wallace before this book, and this book exceeded my outlandish expectations. Which isn’t to say that it was easy or that I totally get every facet of it or that you even have to. I encourage you to buy a reader’s guide; I did (Elegant Complexity, by Greg Carlisle), and I’m glad I did, because it doesn’t make me stupid and it isn’t a defeat to ask for help. And I encourage you to read it. But you have to want to read it, because there will be plenty of times whilst reading it that you will not want to read it, especially in the first two hundred pages, which are chaotic and jump around in time and place and perspective and throw so many characters and plots at you that your mind will recoil and beg you just to put in a movie. But it’s worth it. It is. I guarantee you it is worth it.