For the past three months, off and on, I've been reading a beautiful cloth-bound, hardcover copy of Jane Eyre. I've only recently recommitted myself to reading every day; when I was working in a 9-to-5, the drudgery of words on a screen, the teasing blink of a cursor, and the dizzying lines of black serif-tailed text on a white-paper background made the idea of writing for myself or opening a book completely unattractive. No more words.
But now I spend days bathed in natural light, dimmed by coffee shop blinds or filtered through the trees beyond my living-room windows. And even on those rarest of days where I can discipline myself to work a full eight hours — it's happened once since I lost my job, by the way — I can take breaks to rest my eyes.
So it seemed silly to me that the stacks of books in my apartment staring me, spines in tact, down should keep collecting dust. I read every night now, before bed, which reminds me of being 12 and reading in my childhood bed with dusty-mauve sheets so old and loved that they were actually wearing in the spots where my body spent so many nights.
I adore Jane Eyre; I'd attempted it before but was always tripped up by the cumbersome language. Now, if anything, it's just the punctuation that gets at me; single quotes are where we use double quotes in modern language, and vice versa, and there are so many colons nested throughout a single sentence that takes up three lines that it can be hard to keep up with exactly what the original thought was.
But I love how Mr. Rochester called Jane "Janet" in his most ardent moments, and the way that made me think anachronistically of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I love Jane's impudence and careless way with words, love the way the characters talk to one another, love Jane's I have trouble visualizing it as a movie; in my mind, the characters are more a collection of words and ideas, sometimes taking the shape of humans but mostly just swirls in my head, than they are actual people.
And I have trouble understanding where the story could possibly go now that she's left Thornfield. I still have 75 pages before the end, and while my heart hopes for the 1990s-romantic-comedy happy ending of a reunion between Jane and Rochester, I can't say whether that's plausible or would even really be satisfying.
But I'll have to wait until I'm back from Portland to find out.
The 600-page beast of a book was a weight and bulk my carry-on couldn't accommodate, so I opted for paperbacks as I packed last night for my trip to Portland. I'm always filled with dread when choosing a new book to read — my reluctance to start Jane Eyre again after I finished The Ha-Ha was almost physical. I ended up choosing two: I Was Told There'd Be Cake, a book of essays by Sloane Crosby, who I aspire to be; and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, a book of essays by David Foster Wallace, who terrifies me.
I had an ambitious bout of book buying sometime earlier this year, where I tracked down copies of The Anatomy of Criticism and this David Foster Wallace book, thinking owning them might somehow make me smarter by osmosis. Anatomy of Criticism sits in my top bedside-table drawer like an anxious brick in the pit of my stomach; I haven't even opened it. The pages are tissue-thin and the words impossibly small, and it's still two inches thick. The terror.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, however, sat staring at me from the top of my little desk, stacked among my AP Stylebook and Chicago Manual of Style, a paper dictionary and thesaurus, and a dog-eared copy of Olive Kitteridge on loan from my grandmother. This particular copy was published in 1998, a full 10 years before Foster Wallace killed himself; the short biography says he lives (present tense) in Bloomington, Illinois, accompanied by a photo of a strong, confident man in a black shirt with long hair tied back.
I am not terribly literary. I do not follow authors' careers or celebrate entire collections of their writing. I should, as a writer myself — I should have role models and geniuses of the written word whose styles I hold up as an influence, and be able to quote passages or favorite characters from famous works — but I don't.
All I know of David Foster Wallace, in fact, is that he killed himself. That and the fact that he wrote Infinite Jest, a book I will never read. (It's right up there with Ulysses. Just forget it.)
But I started A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again this morning on the plane, slightly fearful of cracking the spine but somehow just shy of smug in a cabin full of pocket-size mass-market paperbacks, and I loved David Foster Wallace.
There is heart and humanity in his words that I didn't expect. The first essay, 23 pages long, is about math and tennis, but somehow comes around to discussing his "initiation into true adult sadness," around 13 or 14 years old, in the midst of talk of angles and wind shears and how his Zen-like acquiescence to the harsh elements of central Illinois made him a superior junior player.
Halfway through that first essay, I wanted to get a notepad out to take down the words and terms I didn't understand. Instead, I kept reading; the words are important but not as much as the feeling behind them. I want to get to know him through his writing. If that's even possible — did he hold back? I don't know why he killed himself; I don't know whether there was a suicide note that beautifully explained it all. Looking back at his work, do people know David Foster Wallace was doomed?
After 23 pages, I understand already what a tragedy it is that he'll never write another word now. But I'll celebrate him for the next 330 pages and absorb whatever I can.