Last year I led a four month long book discussion on Infinite Jest.
If you’ve never encountered Infinite Jest in meat world, it’s a 1000+ page, unwieldy trade paperback. There are several hundred pages of endnotes, which requires you to constantly flip back and forth. (Flip may be too gentle of a word…it’s more like rolling a baby whale back and forth between your hands.) Part of the Infinite Jest experience is supposed to be physically engaging with a massive volume. It isn’t a book that you are likely to want to take on an airplane, it’s hard to read in bed or while eating dinner, especially if you have little hobbit hands like I do.
As Dave Eggers says in the introduction, it demands your full attention.
One longtime member of my book group didn’t participate in Infinite Jest because chronic pain issues rendered her sadly incapable of holding the book open and sitting with it for any length of time. Another member, though, read it as an ebook.
When you read Infinite Jest as an ebook, all you have to do is just tap the footnote. No second bookmark. No sighing and wondering if the joke at the back of the book is going to be worth the effort of rolling the baby whale. Infinite Jest as a physical book forces you to confront, and feel shamed by, your own laziness. As an ebook, it doesn’t.
I wonder what David Foster Wallace would’ve thought about that.
This came up again last night in our discussion of another long book: The Woman in White. Due to an oh-shit-my-book-group-is-coming-up moment I had last week, I actually downloaded The Woman in White from the library, something I rarely do. There was a glitch, and the little page meter that tells you how far along in the book you are didn’t show up — so at any given time I had only an inkling of where I was in this 700+ page book. It’s a weird experience not knowing if you are on page 70 or 456.
But it was actually okay. At the end of “Doubles: Wilkie Collins’ Shadow Selves,” Jonathan Rosen writes:
That’s how I encountered Collins — reading The Woman in White on my iPhone after years of resisting the recommendations of bug-eyed Collins fans. Without the hurdle of a fat, mulchy hardcover, or the wartime microprint of a paperback classic, I fell into a novel that I’d assumed was by one of Dickens’s backup singers….Soon, Armadale was whispering onto my Kindle, without my even noticing that the book was nearly eight hundred pages long.
–New Yorker, 7/25/2011 [archives available to subscribers only. Check with your library!]