Dispatches | September 05, 2012

Infinite Jest is sitting on my coffee table, all one-million-zillion pages of it. Even though I have the paperback, it’s an impressive brick of a novel. I decided to read it this summer as a change from digging through my ever-growing collection of Angela Carter, and that book I will never admit to reading if you run into me on the street. Jest has been on the shelf, gathering dust with a depressingly large number of other titles I was interested in or thought I had to read to absurdly defend my position among the academic elite.

I opened it. I read five pages. That was one intense meeting. I needed a drink. I put the book down and didn’t pick it up again.

So, you know, I felt the opposite of this hallucinating kid.

My to-be brother in law is eighteen, dropped out of high school and passed his GED, applied to work at a pizza joint, and lives in one of the more economically depressed areas of the country. The Rust Belt, so titled for the gloomy and often dying or dead factories that are no longer employing, no longer running, many of the jobs made obsolete by machines or sent overseas where the same labor is cheaper because people cost less.

I’m from the North-West suburbs of Chicago. Hilary Clinton went to my high school, and there is still a picture of her in one of the hallways. Recently, I was told that a tour bus from Japan came through and took pictures of her portrait. In many imperceptible ways, my high school is a landmark, and there is something unspoken about how its graduates should be landmarks as well; we are capable of great things, we Harry Potters, we Voldemorts.

Most of the people in my graduating class went on to college. If someone did not, it was not spoken of, or maybe whispered about behind our hands. We do not take the ASVAB (indeed, I did not even know what that was until a few months ago) whereas where my fiancé is from, it is taken during school hours, along with the ACT.

When asked, my to-be brother in law, Jeromy, says his favorite book is Infinite Jest.

He was told that some of the most elitist ivory-towered academics get a little queasy at the thought of wading through it and simply choose not to. This surprised him.

“What?” he said. “Reading is easy.”

Why, even this near-sighted dog can read.

The more I think about this, the more I try to extract, perhaps superficially, some meaning from our different backgrounds and the different expectations imposed on us when it comes to literature, I come back to a silly assignment I perform for my composition class: I stand in front of them and ask them to assume anything about me. Guess what my natural hair color is, my religious affiliation, my orientation, my politics, my taste in music, my dietary restrictions, what pets I have and what television show I secretly love.

They usually guess pretty accurately. And why wouldn’t they? I follow a set and typical path, one not so different from the one they were born to. I am a mirror image of their own histories, and this is not to say that blah blah, diversity is lacking on campus, but rather that I am from the same cultural class as they are. I have a learned manner of speech not unlike, though sometimes a parody of, the anchor and weathermen. I value education and I value culture because it was cultivated in me to do so. And still, even though I should know better, I am pleasantly and ignorantly surprised when my expectations of others are turned upside down and shaken for their lunch money.

Now I will make an assumption: there is a difference in the way Jeromy and I approach literature. When I ask my college freshmen what books they enjoy? None, they say. Or something that was clearly assigned to them in school (Romeo and Juliet, or the Great Gatsby). Reading is something we did because we were told to do it, because our parents saw our inevitable college dream as both attainable and obvious, so long as we did the required homework.

And it’s not true, either. I peeked out from behind my father when he purchased me The Odyssey and The Illiad when I was eight, because I had found a copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and was completely devastated if I didn’t get to read every book on gods and goddesses ever produced. My father was so proud. “It’s for her,” he told the clerk, pointing at me. He hadn’t read it; else he probably would have protested at all the weird kinkery that the Greek gods got up to.

Lots of nude spearing. And flowers.

Even then, however, I realized there was a correlation between reading and praise. It was enough that I could say I read it, though. Not too many people actually wanted to talk about it outside of the classroom, and even then it was somewhat of a chore. If I collected enough titles, I was smart. I had invisible but in some ways, strangely visible value. It was in my off the cuff references, the sly jokes I could make that, even if you didn’t understand them, you knew I was speaking a language that had significance.

Another assumption: my to-be brother in law had a sub-par education compared to mine (although, considering how wealthy my suburb is, this is not an assumption, but mere economics). His approach to literature is, perhaps, more genuine, detached from the expected opening line I heard when my parents introduced me as a child to their friends and colleagues – “You know she reads at a high school level? She’s so smart!” – instead, for him it is not only an escape, but an introduction and intense deconstruction to something larger than himself and his agriculture.

When my fiancé and I went to pick up his books from his father’s home, his father eyed the boxes and said “you actually read all of those?” I was surprised – all my parents do is read – but I shouldn’t have been. There is a discrepancy between our classes, one that has differences of time, how education is valued, and how reading is valued.

But reading is amazing, we say! It is almost sacred! It must be revered because it is the highest form of art!

Why do we feel that way? I know I do because it was kindly beaten into me to love it, love it, love it. Yet my fiancé reads obnoxiously, and the same love wasn’t schooled into him through years of systematic praise.

I actually have no idea what Jeromy’s reading experience is like. I do know that I read the books I really truly love – Clive Barker, for example – in my apartment under the covers, yet in coffee shops I’ll pop out a Norton Anthology and hold it up to my face like a second thick skin. I don’t find reading easy, not anymore, if I ever did. Instead, it is something I have to keep up with; I have to read and understand the right things and articulate them later or risk being a charlatan.  It’s an identity, one I am terrified of losing, and one that perhaps hides me, categorizes me, disfigures me and yet how magnificently I profit from the disfigurement. It is a hole I have dug with my own fingers.

I’m working on my PhD, so it’s not too hard to assume that not only have I read Infinite Jest, but I’ve probably written a dreary seminar paper about DFW and post-post-post-po-pomodernism at some point. And when people see Jeromy, I guarantee no one thinks he’s read any book beyond the sparknotes summary, if he even bothered going that far. My voice has more value, especially in academia, because I have access to the terminology, and I know (don’t test me on this) what multimodal and modernism vs. postmodernism means. I can speak of these things over a Bordeoux glass (not to be confused with Bourdieu – aren’t I witty?) and know exactly why Cabernet Sauvignon should be served in it.

It goes without saying, I hope, that I am rather ashamed about that – not that I haven’t read Jest, but rather that there is a decent chance we won’t hear Jeromy’s voice. I guarantee he’ll have better insights  than I would, as I’d just bemoan those footnotes I’ve heard so much about and excuse myself from the conversation.

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