By Erick Kelemen
I'm going to link to two blog posts about reading David Foster Wallace's writing that are evidence of the slow reading that so many people have been calling for—reading for depth of experience, as I put it before. But in each case, the reading doesn't happen as some argue it must, in printed books, with classic literature.
Sarah Werner's post about reading Infinite Jest on her iPad using the Kindle app is now a month old, but it's absolutely worth reading. Werner is sharp about the investments that books, especially 1100-page books like Infinite Jest, require of us: "I’ll prop my slight iPad on my chest, but a heavy book? I’d rather not." The physical advantage for the iPad, though, comes with the problem that the already cumbersome movement between text and endnotes in a big codex is made more cumbersome by the Kindle app, giving us another sense of what is slow about slow reading. It is, as Werner puts it, about investment. The kinks of ebooks will get worked out with time, just as they got worked out as Western culture moved from scroll to codex and from manuscript to print—or perhaps they'll become features rather than bugs. Who knows? For now, ebooks require that we adapt our reading strategies to the limitations and possibilities of the physical medium. Werner's post is beautiful for exploring what goes on with her mentally and physically as she adapts.
About ten days after Werner's, Seth Colter Walls wrote a fascinating post for The New Yorker's Book Bench about Wallace's notes from a tax accounting class that help inform some of what appears in The Pale King, the novel that Wallace's suicide interrupted and that was edited and published posthumously.
Walls's piece is also about reading strategies, but Walls heads the other direction, away from the reader's experience toward the writer's. It's a kind of detective work, the object of which is to discover what principles were at work as Wallace researched and composed The Pale King, uncovering phrases and ideas in the class notes that show up in The Pale King. Perhaps that snooping helps to make sense of obscure passages in the novel. What Walls seems to want to recover, like so many critics, is that passage between lived experience (Wallace's attending tax classes) and the creative output (the beatiful and obscure passages in The Pale King), that movement, as Werner might put it, from investment to payout.
Walls's is a much more old-fashioned reading strategy, not least because he is reading in the archive and reading, specifically, hand-written notes. Realizing how much Walls's engagement with Wallace is the sort of thing that "slow reading" proponents would laud, I begin to wonder how much to call for slow reading is driven by a kind of nostalgia for a different era of reading, perhaps one that never really existed.