There’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure

A few weeks ago I read a Guardian article that asked whether someone’s taste in books could predict dating compatibility. My first reaction was, “hell yeah!” If a bloke reads the same kind of books as me there’s a good chance we’ll hit it off. However the article contains comments from people who are extremely judgmental about others’ reading habits and this is where the whole idea falls down. First of all, frankly if a bloke reads at all, I’m interested, but mainly this pretentious distinction between “high-brow” and “low-brow” or “cultured” and “popular” art is a nonsense. What can you tell about someone who professes that Infinite Jest is their favourite book? That they may or may not have actually read Infinite Jest and that’s about it. What about someone who likes sitcoms? What if they are the same person?

Last week I was doing the “what shall I watch next?” thing, skipping from Netflix to Prime to iPlayer trying to settle on something and not quite feeling into anything. Netflix now has a suggestions button that will cycle through options based on previous viewing. The first few recommendations I had already seen elsewhere but then it came to Superstore, based on my viewing of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks and Recreation. Both excellent shows. But I felt like if something was along those lines and any good, I would have heard of it already? Schitt’s Creek was recommended to me multiple times by multiple people before I finally tried and yes, it does live up to its reputation. But I had literally never heard of Superstore. However the ennui had set in by then so I gave it a try. I could see the similarities to B99 and Parks, but thought it was a bit derivative, bit too fluffy and slapstick in places. A few days later and I’m crying as Jonah comforts Amy as she’s going through a tough time. Later I’m on the edge of my seat as a natural disaster befalls the store. But wait, this is disposable fluff telly, right? Well like most tv these days it is well written and well acted. It does have moments of silliness but also surprisingly deep themes, like worker’s rights, healthcare and immigration, which, by the way America, what the hell is wrong with you? The character of Amy (America Ferrera) has experiences that chime remarkably with my own life. Not totally – I did get married young and had a very similar divorce journey but didn’t get pregnant at 19 and sadly don’t have a Jonah (Ben Feldman) but still I found myself thinking “wow, that’s me” on multiple occasions. It is light, it is fluffy, it is silly, it is low-brow but it is also very good and I am loving it.

The whole idea of this artificial division and associated judgements is class-ist. I remember when I was in my early 20s, taking part in a quiz with some university friends. A lot of the questions related to opera, classical music, theatre etc and I was clueless. It’s not that I’m not intelligent, or that I don’t have good general knowledge, its that coming from a working class background gives you a very different cultural upbringing than those from the middle or upper-middle classes. That isn’t to say that I had no exposure to culture, quite the opposite – but traditional Scottish, folk and popular culture, as “low-brow” doesn’t have the same status or likelihood to appear as questions in quizzes, but it is as rich and fully rounded and as culturally significant as “cultured” culture. At the time I felt ashamed at my lack of knowledge of high culture, but looking back I realise that knowing your Wagner from your Puccini doesn’t make you a better person, just as knowing your Coronation Street from your Eastenders doesn’t make you a lesser person.

I have always liked the lyric from the Franz Ferdinand song “Dark of the Matinee” (one of their best songs if you ask me)

“Time every journey to bump into you, accidentally
I charm you and tell you of the boys I hate
All the girls I hate
All the words I hate
All the clothes I hate
How I’ll never be anything I hate
You smile, mention something that you like
Oh how you’d have a happy life if you did the things you like”

It’s all too easy to pass judgement. It is easy to hate on things, criticise things and make fun of them. I’m no exception, I’ve definitely engaged in that myself. By nature I’m a cynical person and I have strong opinions about a lot of things, A good judgy session can strengthen bonds and cement “us” vs “them” which as social animals we need sometimes. But expressing dislike, criticism or judgement about a tv programme/book/musician shouldn’t be the same as making judgements about the people who do like those things. The times when I’ve found someone who takes a more positive view of things, who talks enthusiastically about an interest or who I share an obsession for something with have been the most life-affirming and uplifting experiences in my life, far outweighing any camaraderie gained from a griping session. The pleasure gained from sharing a passion, sharing joy is a beautiful thing.

As we experienced lockdowns though the COVID-19 Pandemic, most of us watched far more tv and films than we did before. The arts got very little government support during lockdown, yet people continued to create, often going to great lengths to either re-package their output for an online audience, or undergoing rigorous testing, isolation and distancing measures to produce something resembling normal to us. From my own viewing habits alone, I’m going to guess that a lot of the content that has been consumed over the past year has been of the lighter, fluffier, “lower-brow” variety. It offers escapism, gives us laughs and loves when we can’t be with those who make us smile or who we desperately want to hug. It serves a purpose and it serves it well. None of us should feel remotely guilty for that.

On reading (and finishing) Infinite Jest

It began about 5 years ago, when the librarians at my work (I work in a university) were discussing famously un-finish-able books.  Always one to rise to a challenge, I decided to attempt one of them.  I opted for David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest because it was more appealing than James Joyce or Tolstoy. I used to be an avid reader (pre-children) of all kinds of books, but had fallen out of the habit (post-children).  The Irish comedian Dara O’Briain does a routine where he asserts that post-children it is impossible to keep up with all leisure pursuits or popular culture media that you may previously have enjoyed, but that it is vital to retain a few for one’s sanity and the odd chance you get to interact with other adults.  For me, I retained music (both recorded and live) and to some extent television, but out the window (figuratively) went films, books and all other hobbies.  As my first daughter got older, it became possible to claw back some time during evenings or weekends to pick up on those abandoned activities.  In hindsight, it was a mistake to attempt to read a famously un-finish-able book among my first reads in years.  I barely got 20 pages in before realising why it was famously un-finish-able.
But, fast forward 4 or 5 years, the younger child is now 3 years old and actually sleeps occasionally, allowing me an hour or so each evening to engage in a bit of reading.  It felt great to get back in the habit and pick up some books.  I started with the bar low – a couple of autobiographies, some easy crime novels that my mum lent me, then I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird and the prequel Go Set A Watchman. On a roll, I upped the game and got into Jack Kerouac.  I could have happily stayed in Kerouac’s world for much longer, having picked up about 6 novels and a biography at the amazing 2nd hand bookshop near work.  However I had seen a couple of articles in the Guardian (here & here) marking Infinite Jest’s 20th anniversary.  Infinite Jest had sat on my bedside table for years, then had been moved to a high shelf when I moved house.  It mocked me. I knew I would attempt it some day, but had been avoiding it.  Then the stars aligned and having been inspired by reading the Guardian articles, with a good few books under my belt and firmly back in the reading habit, I found 4 nights when the girls were with their grandparents.  This was my chance.  I knew I needed a good solid run into the start of it.  In I went.
I tweeted about it to make it real – there’s nothing like making a personal challenge public to guard against failure.  Of those who got in touch in response, the majority had also started it but not finished it.  Some had had multiple attempts.  Some had been put off even attempting, the reputation making for too daunting a task.
As for my post on Watchman, I’m not going to write a review here, but as usual I’ll share some of my experiences of reading the book and what it has meant to me.
I worked with 3 bookmarks and a reference sheet. One bookmark in my current place in the main body of text. One marking my place in the endnotes. The third marked the end of the main book / beginning of the endnotes, so I knew where I was aiming for and wasn’t disheartened at the prospect of 1079 pages. Only a mere 981….  The reference sheet was a list of year names, although I found I needed this less and less as I progressed through the book and became familiar with the year order.
I also had to read with my phone handy for quick Googling.  I had to Google a lot.  Mostly unfamiliar words/terms.  Infinite Jest is littered with strange and unusual words.  I worked to the rule that if it appeared once I skirted over it, assuming meaning from context.  The flow of reading was interrupted too much already for the damn endnotes without stopping for every single one.  If it appeared more than once I looked it up.  These mostly turned out to be American brands or antiquated terms, and the search results frequently threw up reference to the book.  Clearly I’m not the only one Googling these terms, and clearly only the author has used them in the last century.  There are also the made-up words.  I sincerely hope there’s a band called The Howling Fantods.  Unfortunately every time I read “kertwang” I thought of “Numberwang” which probably wasn’t the intended reaction.
I endeavoured to read for 1 hour every night. Some nights I was so tired I dozed off after 30 minutes.  Other nights, if the girls were at their dad’s I would manage up to 2 hours.  I only took 2 nights off, when I was properly OUT out.  I would come into work bleary eyed and yawning. “Hard night?” “Umm, yeah….” with THE DAMN BOOK..!!
There were nights when I just didn’t feel it.  I was shattered, just wanted to shut my brain off and watch 3 episodes of Gilmore Girls in a row then slip into bed.  Actually sometimes I did allow myself 1 episode of Gilmore Girls to decompress and have a cup of tea before opening the book.  And through Gilmore Girls I learned that Glad (as in Man From / Year Of) was an actual US company.
I reached a point about 2/3 of the way in, about page 600 when hefting the book open was beautifully satisfying.  About 750 pages in, I pushed myself onwards, telling myself I only had a regular-sized book-equivalent to go.
Of course it wasn’t that simple.  The number of pages in no way relates to time taken to read.  I consider myself a fast reader, but progress here was far slower than normal.  I could plug away for a good hour, and advance a mere 10 pages.  This is in large part due to the constant flicking back and forth to the endnotes.  There are 96 pages of endnotes.  In minuscule font.  Some endnotes go on for several pages.  Some endnotes refer you to other endnotes or have footnotes themselves.  It is infuriating.  Especially when your flow of reading is interrupted only to find the endnote explains an abbreviation you are familiar with, gives some excruciating detail about a (fictional?) chemical manufacturing company, or simply states, “no idea”.  Some contain a few words that could easily be incorporated into the text (“or so he thought”, “and then some”) but the author forces you to stop, flip, read, sigh, grit your teeth then start back where you left off.  I came to loathe endnote no. 304 which one is directed to I think 4 times, at least once by another endnote.  And it goes on for 8 pages.  And did I mention the minuscule font?  I feared for my eyesight, envisioning a trip to the opticians resulting in a diagnosis of Infinite Jest-induced sight deterioration.
I found myself daydreaming about all the marvellous things I would do once I had finished the book and could reclaim those couple of hours each evening.  A panic set in when I realised I was going to Berlin for a couple of days in October.  2 nights away, then my BSL class was due to start the day I got back. 3 nights of not being able to read THE BOOK.  I had to finish before then.  There’s no way I could lose 3 days so (hopefully) close to the end.  I became all too aware that this book was beginning to have the same effect on me as the “Entertainment” that is the subject. All consuming.  Falling victim no doubt to some deliberate manipulation by the author.
It wasn’t all bad, though.  Much as the prospect of the daily reading appeared as a chore, once I settled down (3 bookmarks, phone, large cup of tea), once I entered the strange but familiar world, reading was actually a pleasure.  I WANTED to read it. Even when I was exhausted, eyes drooping and head nodding, I WANTED to keep going.  It was compelling.  What I wasn’t expecting, was that it was funny. It is a particular type of humour, but it appealed to me and I found myself smiling a lot and laughing out loud on more than one occasion. I particularly liked the many varied extraordinary and unusual ways that characters, often minor or incidental characters, were maimed or killed.  These descriptions are often briefly mentioned as almost throwaway comments, in the midst of several pages of excruciating detail about tennis training or filmmaking.
“Also, my own father, dead when his Kenbeck pacemaker came within range of a misdialled number of a cellular phone…” p776
Actually that whole section where Marathe is being “Swiss” is among the funniest and one of my favourite bits.
Getting through this book, understanding it, enjoying it and already planning on reading it again sometime, has meant I have proven several things to myself.  I shouldn’t be daunted by any piece of literature.  I am smart enough to read and “get” this kind of novel.  I sometimes doubt this about myself.  I didn’t grow up in a house with literary novels.  I have had to find my own path through classic and modern literature, and am well aware that I am still not particularly well read.  This was what made me explore Kerouac.  I had assumed his writing would be too intellectual/esoteric for me. I play down my own intellectual capabilities and tell myself that kind of genre is for other people. What I found, of course, is that Kerouac has a famously naturalistic style of writing that really appealed to me and I found myself wondering what on earth I had feared.  David Foster Wallace has a less accessible style, and the structure, language and complexity of Infinite Jest made it a tough read, but not an impossible one.  I was glad to get through it, also proud of myself for taking on the challenge and succeeding.  I won’t let myself be daunted by any book again.
Although it may be some time before I attempt another famously un-finish-able book…