This all started because, as it turns out, I’m a sucker for well-written forewords.
I was in a Barnes & Noble (so sue me), and I glimpsed a copy of Sir David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a novel I’d caught wind of as an English-loving bachelor pursuing a Bachelor’s in English. But feelings of intimidation had caused me to place it on the back burner of my literary list, at least until after graduation. I’d graduated in December of 2011 (age 23). Nine months passed, and I’d gotten married in August of 2012 (still 23). Another nine gestational months passed before — no longer a bachelor and having obtained my bachelor’s — I reencountered Wallace’s Jest in a Barnes & Noble that fateful day in May of 2013 (now 24 years old).
So I picked up the novel and read the foreword, written by author Dave Eggers. He writes:
Let’s talk about age, the more pedestrian meaning of the word. It’s to be expected that the average age of the new Infinite Jest reader would be about twenty-five. There are certainly many collegians among you, probably, and there may be an equal number of thirty-year-olds or fifty-year-olds ho have for whatever reason reached a point in their lives where they have determined themselves finally ready to tackle the book, which this or that friend has urged upon them. The point is that the average age is appropriate enough. I was twenty-five myself when I first read it. I had known it was coming for about a year, because the publisher, Little, Brown, had been very clever about building anticipation for it, with monthly postcards, bearing teasing phrases and hints, sent to every media outlet in the country. When the book was finally released, I started in on it almost immediately.
And thus I spent a month of my young life.
And thus I spent the next six months — having then decided to postpone reading Wallace’s Jest until my 25th birthday — greatly anticipating this exciting and impending challenge and ravenously devouring many other (much shorter) books in the meantime, such as:
- Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, by David Foster Wallace (321 pages)
- We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver (400 pages)
- The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger (214 pages)
- The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell (479 pages)
- Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy (351 pages)
- Out of the Silent Planet, by C. S. Lewis (158 pages)
- Homer & Langley, by E. L. Doctorow (209 pages)
Infinite Jest, weighing in at 1079 pages, will be (by a significant margin) the longest book I’ve ever read.
And the thing is, I haven’t always been a reader.
As a kid, spelling, reading, and grammar did come very easily to me (I recall testing in 6th or 7th grade at a post-graduate reading level), and I have always appreciated books and enjoyed reading. However, I always seemed to prefer spending my free time pursuing other interests — partly, I would say, due to a lack of the necessary patience which decent novels require, but also because of an overabundance of other interests (among which, ironically was — and remains — an interest in writing).
Thankfully my desire for fiction, stoked by reading Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in high school, slowly grew to a smolder, fully igniting when I began my undergraduate studies. My literary endurance was still low, but as each new challenge presented itself (Melville’s Moby-Dick, Collins’ The Woman in White, Hardy’s Jude the Obscure) and I found myself able to overcome, my avidity as a reader sparked into a full-on conflagration. And, while I don’t doubt there are much more ardent enthusiasts of literature than me, I now consider myself a sort of low-level bibliophile. I am constantly acquiring books (to the extent that I’ve had to abstain from entering bookstores, knowing that if I do I’ll end up buying at least one, if not four or five, new novels).
In any case (back to the story), I began to notice as I awaited my 25th-birthday venture into Wallace’s literally infinite-seeming Jest that, of the novels accumulating on my shelf, a handful of them, like Jest, were also rather large pieces of work (1000 or so pages in length), which I hadn’t yet dared to read. Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, if I were to make my 25th year of life my ‘Year of Big Books’? Starting with Infinite Jest on my turn-of-a-quarter-century, what if I read only thousand-page novels the whole year?
As these ideas began to percolate, another thousand-page novel persisted in catching my eye on the bookstore shelves (surprise, surprise): Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. Was it coincidence, or perhaps fate, that the foreword for this novel was also written by none other than Dave Eggers? So I read the opening two paragraphs…
In the event that you’ve just picked up this book, and know little or nothing about it, and are unsure whether you should read it, I want to urge you with all my being that you must read The Executioner’s Song. I want to further guarantee you that you will finish it. It’s the fastest 1,000 pages you will ever know.
It’s necessary to say, up front, that whatever you might know or think about Norman Mailer, or whatever you might assume about the man, his work, his personality or his sociopolitical views, none of that information (or misinformation) applies here. This is a story that bears no markings of what we presume to be Mailer’s prose style or point of view. The Executioner’s Song is completely something other. Mailer once said that the book was given to him, whole and complete, from God, and it’s difficult to argue with that. The Executioner’s Song cannot be improved. Mailer did not write a better book, and I’m not sure anyone of his generation wrote a better book.
Well, that was all I read — and frankly all I had to read. Needless to say, I bought Mailer’s book. Like I said: a sucker for good forewords. Or apparently forewords written by Mr. Eggers. (Admittedly, I’ve never read any of his novels (sorry, Dave!), though a copy of his semi-biographical What Is the What rests on my shelves among the other thirty or so novels that I’ve purchased with the sincerest of intent to read.)
From there the idea became solidified in my mind. I began feverishly researching novels of around 1000 pages. I even thought, for the sake of conceptual continuity, that I would read 25 “Big Books”: 25,000 pages in my 25th year! (But when I did the math and realized that I would have to read over 2,000 pages a month in order to accomplish that figure, I threw conceptual continuity out the window and figured I’ll just see how this plays out.)
So on November 17th, 2013, I begin A Year of Big Books: not only the greatest test of my literary endurance in my 25 years of life, but a blog I’ll be tending to throughout the year, reviewing and reflecting on the novels as I finish them, documenting the trials and tribulations of such an extensive literary exercise, and hopefully inspiring readers into a new (or renewed) love of literature in the process.
And that’s the story. I blame Dave Eggers.