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Vonnegut and Wallace: Reading obsessions

Let me tell you about going through phases. Just a couple of weeks ago, I spoke in some detail about obsessions that descended on me over the years. Hobbies, some might call them, intrigue me, consume me, and, finally, leave me, often just as quickly as they ramped up.

I can say the same about my reading. Right now, I am on a Vonnegut kick. It began when my kids and I were in Yellowstone. Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was my trip book (also my third reading of that incredible book). I also brought David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest on my Kindle, just in case I decided to continue on that frustrating and, ultimately, weirdly satisfying track.

My daughter’s trip book was Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. By the time she completed that book, about four days into the trip, I needed a break from the solidity and density of Zen. She continued on with Agatha Christie’s And Then There were None. I took up Breakfast of Champions and found myself sunk into that book, which I completed in just two easy afternoons.

Of course, I moved back to Zen and completed it and took up Infinite Jest.

Just to go on a minute about that book: Huge volumes, and Wallace’s book is a tome to beat all others, generally don’t take my fancy. So, it’s not that I am not capable of long works. I just tend to lose interest in them after a while. My capacity for fiction is about 110,000 words, or about 400 pages. But I have read longer works: Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Celine’s Journey to the End of Night, Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and many others.

I do better with bulky works of nonfiction: Marx’ Das Kapital vols. I, II, and III, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Least-Heat Moon’s PrairyErth, So it Goes, Charles J. Shields’ 550-page biography of Kurt Vonnegut, Just One Catch, Tracy Daugherty’s 600-page biography of Joseph Heller, and so on. Fiction, however, works differently for me. I have taken on multi-volume works on the Roman Empire (Gibbon), the Civil War (Foote), World War Two (Churchill), and World History (Durant). Most good history books for me focus on a topic and are, at most, 500 pages long. None of the books I read for my Ph.D. historiography was longer than 450 pages.

So, here we are back to Wallace. His 1,079-page Jest bogs down, becomes muddy, and finally impenetrable about every 250 pages. Friends of mine have been reading this work for years. I find that will be the case for me. I read it little by little, some here, some there. While I started out with the determination to read it from front to back, with no other books in between, I have found it a book that needs other books. Nothing gets lost in the pauses and breaks. When I get back I know that Hal Incandenza will Don Gately will be there for me.

And just a couple more things about Jest: First, I don’t really know what it’s about except tennis, AA and alcohol recovery, and international intrigue in a post-post-modern, pre-post-apocalyptic world where absurdity and reality—like the recovering alcoholic’s worldview at the end of that last drinking binge—get confused, feathered together, and fused. It’s a world of fun all to itself.

Second, I like Wallace’s writing. It’s not Hemingway. In fact, it’s the opposite. The text contains freighted, arcane, and obscure words. Some are made up, as if Wallace thought he could sneak them in without us noticing. Some sentences are as long as paragraphs, and paragraphs can be many pages in length. These stylistic details and the density and length of the work are very likely to create David Foster Wallace schools of literary criticism.

Now, back to Yellowstone. My daughter’s reading selection makes me proud of her. In fact, she’s something of a Vonnegut expert, having read all his 14 novels and several of his short story and nonfiction collections. I decided when I returned home to get back into Vonnegut and read everything I already read again, and to get into the one book I had not read for whatever reason, Deadeye Dick.

So, I found myself in a phase and it show no signs of abating. Since returning from our trip, I have read 10 of Vonnegut’s novels. I will skip the Sirens of Titan, Player Piano, Cat’s Cradle, and Slaughterhouse-Five. I have already read these works multiple times and can tell you just what they are about. No doubt, I would enjoy reading them again. The appetite just isn’t there. I want to move on to new Vonnegut horizons. I have already read all his short story collections but not his nonfiction anthologies. That’s what I’m doing next. To that end, I just started Palm Sunday, a collection of speeches and essays published in 1981.

I have been here before. I went through a Joseph Heller phase about six years ago. Before then, I read all of W. Somerset Maugham’s novels, including his detective novels. I’ve gone through phases with John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor (I have to admit her bibliography was bigger than me), and William Styron. I have read and reread all the poetry collections and novels, as well as short stories of my friend Conger Beasley, Jr. Wallace Stephen’s taken my fancy, as has Chuck Palahniuk and Jonathan Franzen, though I must say that after The Corrections, well, it didn’t keep me.

And where is American History in all this? I am, after all, a doctor in that field. The secret is that I sneak histories and nonfiction in between and during phases all the time. My friend Bill Neaves has recommended incredible nonfiction, which I take up and read so that we can discuss these topics at our frequent chats. Rev. David Dechant, a long-time co-conspirator, gives me book recommendation. Pat O’Kelley, another subversive, also gives me book tips from time to time.

The Vonnegut thing is part of a larger whole. My Ph.D. is in American History and American Literature. When I’m trying, as I am now, to produce literature, I read literature. When I get back into my dissertation (to turn it into a book), history, historiography, new scholarship, and the old reliables will inundate me. I look forward to that time. Right now, my attentions are elsewhere.

Plus, there’s always spring. The days will lengthen. The light will change. I find that when this happens, I withdraw. I use books like bunkers. I will read much more in the spring than I’m reading now. Books are the great comfort in my depressive states. This coming year, I might start another multi-volume history. That would be good.

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  1. I would like to read much more Patrick Dobson.
    Big books.
    But if they are not coming
    I must be happy to read short ones.

  2. One is missing: B Traven.
    Surprise me if you are not interested in.

    Here is a link where you can download
    some of his books in Kindle format. (Free)

    • Thanks, Ilmari. It’s on my to-read list. I look forward to it. I’m glad you’re still reading my work!

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