Dana Coffield: The Things We Read for Our Friends

Somehow I managed not to know a thing about Infinite Jest and its heft, or David Foster Wallace and his tragic end, though I have in the past few years read authors Zadie Smith and Mary Karr, who were influenced by and/or dated Wallace, and I enjoyed their work quite a lot.

So why not take the bait dropped by my old newspaper pal Mark Flanagan, whom I have known and worked with, on and off, since about the time this book landed back in 1996? Participating in the Infinite Winter book club would allow me to spend online time with him, even though we live roughly three miles from each other in the very same town and surely could see one another at a coffee shop or bar, or even pass in the produce aisle of the grocery store, if we weren’t so deeply rooted in the virtual world that Wallace seemed to forecast back when Mark and I first worked together, at a time when there was no social media and each department at the newspaper had but a single e-mail account.

I knew I was in trouble when I bought the book during a visit to my brother in Bay Area before the winter holidays, calling a Barnes & Noble at a mega mall and asking that a copy be set aside so I could pick it up on the way to the airport. My flight was five minutes or 100 hours delayed, and I figured I could chip away a chapter or all of them while I waited for the weather in Denver to clear or my airline to get its act together. I almost pushed the book back when the clerk dropped all three pounds and 1,079 pages on the counter in front of me. As I thumbed through it on the ride to SFO, I nearly lost my breath when I realized that chapters many, many pages long were a single paragraph and that the footnotes might not be optional, and shoved the book into my backpack hoping it wouldn’t push me over the 20-pound carry-on limit.

This read is already a challenge for me. The world has become more technologically complex in the 20 years since Infinite Jest was published and along the way, the premium on quick communication has skyrocketed. In those first few years Mark and I worked together, I struggled as a tech columnist to discuss difficult concepts within the confines of 200-word count. My editor insisted it was an elegant exercise in intellectual discipline. Today, my yoke is Twitter and I communicate clearly in 140 characters. It makes me wonder if Wallace’s dark stew of compound sentences will hold up in a contemporary reading light. Do I have the patience to sort through the arcane use of three-dollar words and extraneous descriptions to find the narrative thread and follow it to its end? The remaining 966 pages will tell.

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Denver Post business editor Dana Coffield has been a full-time professional reader since 1996 and a solo recreational reader since roughly 1969. Despite the attempt of a well-meaning librarian to warn her away from chapter books when she was in kindergarten, Dana has read many, many long fiction and nonfiction books and occasionally talks about them in the pages of The Denver Post Books and Business sections, and on Twitter @denpostdana. Infinite Winter is her first book club.

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5 thoughts on “Dana Coffield: The Things We Read for Our Friends”

  1. First off – I love this description of your, um, trepidation. I haven’t even tried to read Infinite Jest, although I’ve enjoyed many of his nonfiction essays and if you can spare the reading time (doubt it!) I suggest “Consider the Lobster” and a “Supposedly Fun Thing” – I think you’ll especially love the latter. It should make you feel better to know I bought the “Consider the Lobster” collection before heading out to the residency where I am (obviously) procrastinating (again) right now, because (the purchase, not the procrastination) of an essay in the collection about A Dictionary of Modern Ameriacn Usage, and I’m writing some essays that are tangentially about that topic. So I bought this book for this essay and I just can’t get through the essay. Jesus. And that’s the primary text. Not the footnotes.
    Good luck!

  2. It’s interesting how everyone approaches Jest with a different set of lead-off impressions. This winter is also my first reading, but I personally have not been intimidated or discouraged by the length, footnotes or vocabulary. My intent isn’t to brag. I think the reason is that I’ve entered this sphere with the proper expectations. The End of the Tour film and the Great Concavity podcast and having read a Supposedly Fun Thing really told me everything to expect, and so far, my experience with the book has been divine. Perhaps the three-dollar words aren’t a drag due to the kindle format; I click on the word and about half the time, a suitable definition pops right up for me about 70% of the time.

    1. Yes! I thought, when I was stumbling on unfamiliar words in the first few pages, that THIS is when you want a Kindle. Also, I think it would make the foot notes more accessible, if you can toggle back and forth. I mention the vocab mostly because the writing is so complex that it’s nearly impossible to guess the definitions based on context, so I fear I’m losing meaning. I’m mostly reading in bed, or on the couch after work, so it’s hard to balance a dictionary and a dictionary-sized book.

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