Both Flesh and Not: Essays. David Foster Wallace.

Wallace D. Both Flesh and Not: Essays. Little, Brown New York 2012; Hachette Digital retrieved for Kindle.

This stands out in my reading life as the first book I’ve obtained using Amazon’s electronic medium Kindle. I should say something about that.

I’ve been acquisitive and precious about books ever since I could read. I rank losing maybe 60% of my library, during the years between stably living with my parents or on my own in university and landing back in another domicilary stability 10 years later, somewhere up there with family members’ deaths and my discovery that I was going to die. So it seemed to me that switching from paper books I could clasp in my hands, smell, and squeeze into my adored bookshelves… switching to some cloud-accessible electronic binary flashes twittering in the dangerous web of the new reality, might feel like I had lost something important.

But I do read a lot on holidays and I hate dragging a painful suitcase full of books to and from airports. And the usually-ignored sensible part of me knows that paper books are, like greasy vinyl LP discs from the 70s, doomed to interest only Cluster A hoarders. It’s the same words. And those words engender experience, not a small neat paper object that 40 years from now will be yellow and falling apart, never mind I might page through and sniff it when I’m 100 years old, grasping for what its epiphany felt like in 1962 in the back yard.

Well, I was shocked at how painlessly I was converted. The first time I finished a book at 3 am and downloaded another one in about 90 seconds I knew sentimental book-fondling was over for me. Kindle is cheaper, backlit so I don’t have to keep my wife awake at night, light as a feather, totes its own dictionary, can reference back to characters’ first appearance, and as far as the art gallery epiphany is concerned it isn’t any different at all. Plus my bookshelves are full. I can smell and reminisce all I want. The switchover was like falling off a log.

So to Wallace’s essays. He is fascinating of course from a lot of angles, and my experience of Infinite Jest hooked me like a lazy monkfish. One of the incongruities in that enormous book was Wallace’s shift in — I am fumbling here: symbolic and ideologic reference I guess — in respect of tennis. The title essay about Roger Federer is the same. It’s like an impossible flat crosscourt backhand: the description is a difficult but simple admiration which could’ve been written by a very different author, and type of author, than the one who wrote his introduction to a volume of “Best Essays” in 2006, which was self-deprecatingly funny as hell and just acrobatically clever.

Some, in that way, are a lot better than others. An appreciation of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a fictional work about the unphilosophic philosopher is woven with analysis of solipsism and how facts are disconnected in a setting of language’s reference to those facts. It touches on the extent to which we impose order where it isn’t. I loved it. Some didactic whimsical English grammar not so much. And in case we wondered about his politics, Just Asking is a completely deadpan literary Jon Stewart deep-sixing of how America deals morally with dying for a cause.

I like his fiction better. 8.0 overall but very variable in both style and content.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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