Friday, January 15, 2010

Don't You Know This Is Better Than Any Video, Friend

By Kevin Guilfoile

Over the summer I mentioned several times in this space that I was reading (and blogging about) David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. It's a book that a great many people are passionate about (including our own Marcus Sakey) so when it was over and I participated in a roundtable discussion with the the others involved with the Infinite Summer project, I shouldn't have been surprised when I was asked, "Did reading this book change your life?" But I was caught off guard and my not very eloquent reply was this:

When you first say that it sounds hyperbolic, but of course great books have changed my life again and again. I became a novelist because there were great novels I read and admired. To Kill a Mockingbird changed my life. So did The Martian Chronicles. A Confederacy of Dunces. The Brothers Karamazov. Doctor No. The Moviegoer. The Stars My Destination. Lonesome Dove. Rosemary’s Baby. Frankenstein. In Cold Blood. London Fields. The Shining. L.A. Confidential. Too many others to list. I said before that it’s impossible for me to casually rattle off my favorite books because the list changes depending on when you ask me and what I’m working on and thinking about and currently inspired by. But I’m sure Infinite Jest will always be in the rotation now when I attempt an answer. Just being in that company means, yeah, it affected me profoundly.


Then a funny thing happened. In the months that followed I found myself spending a lot less time on the Internet. I checked my email less frequently. I wasn't so tethered to my Twitter feed. I stopped keeping up with the very latest viral videos. I'm not entirely unplugged--even now I'm better wired than most people I know my age--but up until this fall I always had half my head in the Internet. Even when I was watching TV or helping to make dinner or working on my novel, I always had part of my head in this other world. And then suddenly I didn't. I don't want to overdramatize the extent of the change, but I found myself much more focused. More productive. When I was doing things--whether it was working or reading or playing with my kids--I was having more fun. I was less distracted. I was happier.

If you haven't read Infinite Jest there is a macguffin in the book--a video that is so pleasurable to watch it turns anyone who views it into a vegetable. Once you experience the pleasure of this "Entertainment" you don't want to do anything else but watch it, which you do until you die of starvation or whatever. Recently I went back to the Infinite Summer archive to find an exact quote for something or other and I stumbled on something I had written in July. It was a rant, really, but I had largely forgotten about it:

The front page of this morning’s Chicago Trib business section is almost entirely dedicated to the story of Dave Carroll, who wrote a song about how a United Airlines baggage handler broke the neck of his guitar. Carroll posted a video on YouTube and thanks to Twitter and Facebook almost 3 million people have watched it in just a couple weeks and now United is donating a few grand in his name to charity. Certainly I’m happy for the dude. The song is pretty catchy and yay for the little guy striking a blow to humongous indifferent corporations. But airlines break shit all the time. One of them lost my kid’s car seat over the Fourth. This can’t be the most important business story of the day. And it’s not just this story because if I were writing this next Tuesday it would be some other online obsession of the week sprawled all over Page One and I would have already forgotten about this guy’s guitar. More and more news reporting seems to be increasingly Twitter- and Facebook-based. I’m not talking about protesters Tweeting from Iran, which is actually newsworthy, but it’s Ashton vs. CNNBRK, and an Australian TV network says Jeff Goldblum is dead because somebody tweeted it and oh my Demi got fooled by that rumor too, and look this homely British person is a surprisingly good singer, and in yet another section of today’s actual paper–the actual newsy news section even–there’s a story about lifestreamers (or lifecasters) as well as a woman who spends seven hours a day on social networking sites, a woman so addicted to social networking that she wants to Twitter as she walks down the aisle at her wedding and the more we Twitter the more the actual news is about how much we’re all Twittering, and when I think about how much time we (me too) spend on this stuff and how much of the shared experience of our culture is just completely disposable and pointless it really does make me sad and at just that moment I’m reading this book and...it strikes me as just so true it makes my stomach hurt.


I'm not reprinting this to make some self-righteous point or to say I've got a prescription for anyone else's happiness. (And I go on to say that the target of my bluster was not social networking itself--I still find Facebook and Twitter to be very useful tools.) My only point today is that I wish I hadn't been so flippant a few weeks after I wrote that when somebody suggested that a novel I had just read might have changed my life. I should know the kind of power books have.

But it's the kind of power that sneaks up on you, isn't it. Sometimes it changes you and you don't even realize it.

20 comments:

Dana King said...

Are you sure just reading the book did this? I'd be leery of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy; the sun doesn't rise just because the rooster crowed first,

I haven't read INFINITE JEST, and I don't want to sound like I'm demeaning it. I juts seems that, unless it specifically said "don;t spend so much time on the internet," you must also be doing something more now than before because of the book, which leaves you less time for the Web.

Just saying.

Libby Hellmann said...

You raise some valid points, Kevin... I often wonder about my Twitter-based, Facebook-connected world. It's almost a relief to turn the computer off sometimes, or to go to other activities (I just joined Netflix and am catching up on all sorts of films I've missed)...

I will read Infinite Jest... but like Dana, I wonder if that was the genesis of your behavior changes, or whether you nailed it when you ranted about the disposable world we live in.

DId any of that come from Infinite Jest?

Sean Chercover said...

Dana and Libby - I didn't get that from Kevin's post.

Not speaking for Kevin, but to me, books change our lives not because they feed us suggestions about how to change our lives, but because they ring a bell-of-recognition in our heads - and that bell is a call-to-reflection. Something in the book resonates, and we reexamine our lives, reconsider our values and behaviors vis-a-vis the ideas in the book that resonated.

A book is a conversation. And a good conversation can change the way you look at your life.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Thanks Sean (and Libby and Dana, too).

I think literature changes our lives not so much by teaching us things that had never occurred to us, but by stating something eloquently that we always sensed was true but had no way of making concrete. I chose not to quote Wallace in this post because doing so would make it longer than any of us would like (there is a long quote in my original IS post), and then the quote would require further discussion.

Reflecting on INFINITE JEST over several months--one of the things it made me realize is that the kind of malaise I get when I've just spent an hour online being mildly amused but not accomplishing anything isn't new or particular to the Internet. That in itself isn't really profound, but reflecting on this powerful, fictional story caused me to alter my behavior in small ways that I believe has made me happier and more productive. As Dana and Libby point out, it's nothing like a direct cause and effect, but it's powerful stuff nevertheless.

I doubt I would have been changed at all by a self-help book that tried to tell me the same thing.

Sara Paretsky said...

I'm reading David Lodge's Deaf Sentence right now. Lodge is either tedious or witty, depending on which side of a razor writing line he falls on, and Deaf Sentence manages both. But the protagonist is wrestling with deafness, and I have been wrestling with my husband's deafness and his unwillingness to wear a hearing aid, and the novel is both helping me understand what happens as you lose hearing, and helping me understand my husband's affliction. I still think when my hearing deteriorates I am going to be first in line at the audio clinic, but I'm seeing my own intolerance in a way that's forcing me to change.
Usually when I read a novel that I feel is changing my life it's more the exaltation of being in the presence of glorious writing. I don't usually come away with such a specific change.
Now, if I could just read a novel that would keep me out of the ice cream bin,,,,maybe Gaitskill's "Two Girsl, one fat, one thin..."

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