One of the wonderful things about being in an MFA program is getting assigned books one would otherwise never read. I treasure those books that I discovered only because an advisor pushed it in front of me and insisted that it would blow my mind. My attitude as a student was to seek out the most challenging, unique, and varied books I could find.
I have fond memories of spending eight hours straight lost in Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon, plowing through the verbal thicket of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable, and feeling like my brain was getting scooped out of my head by Thomas Bernhard’s The Lime Works. There’s something exhilarating about getting utterly lost without a compass in a dense work of literature.
And then there’s the time I took a break between semesters and read a trashy biography about Charles Manson. I had been steeped in Eastern European experimental prose writers, and digging into a trashy paperback detailing the Manson murders was like stumbling out of a fine restaurant and indulging in some Krispy Kreme. Or like playing in a neighborhood pick-up game of basketball after having played in the NBA.
I found that my reading muscles had developed so much over the course of three semesters that I could see with shocking clarity what the author of this true crime book was up to: the hyperbole, the mixed metaphors, the breathless prose. Reading it was fun.
I’ve told that story to a number of my students, and have been thinking a lot about my reading diet lately. This being the week when all the graduating theses appear, I’m deep in student work, but I did manage recently to finish D.T. Max’s new biography about David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. I’ve been a fan of Wallace since Infinite Jest rearranged my cognitive furniture in the months after it came out, and I was saddened by his death in the same way I was saddened by the death of Kurt Cobain. I was eager to learn more about his troubled and accomplished life.
David Foster Wallace’s reading diet has raised eyebrows ever since he started dropping names like Tom Clancy and Thomas Harris alongside those of Dostoevsky and Pynchon when discussing his literary loves. He was a fan of Stephen King’s The Stand and his archives include shelves full of self-help books marked up by his distinctive marginalia.
DFW’s tastes were all over the map, and he paid attention to low as well as highbrow fare. My guess is that he sought to learn something, everything from everything he read. As a writer, his work provides an example of how to notice the world, how to capture the fleeting essences of things and crystallize it in prose. And as a reader, he shows us that there are lessons to be had in unexpected places, in those difficult works that make us feel stupid and in those easy books that make us feel smarter than we actually are.
Okay. Back to packets. Happy reading!