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Dave Eggers Loves Infinite Jest, Or Does He?

It seems like ages ago when I read Infinite Jest. When was that? 2011 to be precise. I had one kid at the time, and he wasn’t even one yet. My blog was in its early awkward years…my mom was reading 101 Books, and maybe three or four of you, but that’s about it.

I loved the novel as a whole, but it’s like one big blur. So if you asked me to summarize it off the cuff, I couldn’t. Hopefully, my two-part review would do a decent job of that. And I would hope that if I re-read the novel today, my take would be similar to what it was in 2011. But would it?

This article on Ed Rants brings up the point. In 1996, Dave Eggers (you might know him from A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and as the founder of McSweeneys) reviewed Infinite Jest for The San Francisco Chronicle.

He wasn’t much of a fan:

Besides frequently losing itself in superfluous and wildly tangential flights of lexical diarrhea, the book suffers under the sheer burden of its incredible length.

But the book is more about David Foster Wallace than anything else. It’s an extravagantly self-indulgent novel, and, page by page, it’s often difficult to navigate.

Ten years later, Eggers wrote the foreword the 10th anniversary edition of Infinite Jest—with quotes like this:

“1,067 pages long and there is not one lazy sentence. The book is drum-tight and relentlessly smart and, though it does not wear its heart on its sleeve, its deeply felt and incredibly moving.”

Eggers never mentions his prior review of Infinite Jest. And as the Ed Rants blog points out, his take on the novel couldn’t be more different. You can read Eggers’ original 1996 review at Ed Rants, and his 2006 foreword here.

I can see the blogger’s point. It sure seems like Eggers is being hypocritical or backtracking on his earlier review—but is that really the case?

Opinions change over the course of time. Strong opinions. I used to be staunchly for capital punishment about 15 years ago, but now I’m staunchly against it (full disclaimer: I never received any money from a lobbyist). Am I a hypocrite because my opinion changed?

Even in the world of book reviews, I think we can give people the grace and flexibility to see things in a new way—especially if there’s been a long period of time between the two expressed views.

The trick, though, and maybe this is where Eggers messed up—is to own up to things you’ve said and written in the past. Don’t try to shovel it under the carpet and act like it never happened.

What’s your take on the Eggers flip flop? Has your view on any one book changed significantly through the years?

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16 Comments Post a comment
  1. I agree with you. Opinions do change over time, though I think it is most honest to acknowledge that when changing one’s mind, particularly in a public forum. For example, I hated the movie American Hustle when I came out, and posted a fairly scathing review on my blog. However, my assessment has begun to change, and, if I view the film again, I am likely acknowledge the past and correct my mistake.

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    May 29, 2014
  2. teresa #

    Interesting – I was just thinking of my own changed reaction to IJ while I was making breakfast today.

    He should have owned up to it. David Foster Wallace said that it was a book that needed to be read several times to appreciate the nuances … and, I think, to come to terms with it. I’m not surprised that Eggers view has changed. The book is huge in every way including and has strong views of society, politics and relationships. Initially, I was bowled over by it, Eggers was not. Today, I am much more critical of the book (while still being in awe of it), Eggers is gung-ho. I think that IJ will be a part of the conversion of the modern world (nuclear power, deregulation, drugs, terrorism) for some time to come, and we will change our views of the world and of the book as a result.

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    May 29, 2014
  3. Opinions change, but it’s odd just how opposed his two reviews were, and that he ignored the old review. Also, what had happened in the meantime: DFW had gone from being a nobody to a big deal in American literature, so there’s a suspicion of sycophancy or at least of reviewing the name not the book in Eggers’ turnaround.

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    May 29, 2014
  4. I also agree with you. Some books need time. And I think there are books that can be read only at a particular time in a reader’s life because you need to be ready for them. It is not a shame to confess that you couldn’t appreciate a certain book because you weren’t ready for it. Until now, I was not ready to read James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. I tried but it didn’t work, I couldn’t enjoy it. Maybe that’s exactly what happened to Dave Eggers, too. I don’t blame him for changing his opinion on “Infinite Jest” but I truly believe he should have explained why he did so. Or what caused it.

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    May 29, 2014
  5. 1banjo #

    I tried to re-read Catch 22, given a raise from mere bestseller to classic in the years after it was first published. On second reading, I put it aside as so-so like Norman Mailer’s fiction. James Jones the same thing. Hemingway, definitely. Tastes change and most books have pull dates. If they are still around after, say, 50 years, they’ve got the right stuff. I’m reading Tacitus right now. He had it.

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    May 29, 2014
  6. Eggers is a sharp guy. I think it would have been interesting to see him analyze his old review, point by point, and explain why his view had changed.

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    May 29, 2014
  7. While it would have been interesting to hear why his opinion changed, I don’t know if he was obligated to explain… of any book, I can see IJ being a different read from your 20s to your 30s!

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    May 29, 2014
  8. I can’t leave any kind of objective reply here – I read “Infinite Jest” a couple years ago. It was my introduction to David Foster Wallace, and I loved it – I loved it so much that I read all the footnotes ;o) All I kept thinking was, “What kind of mind thinks like this??” Then a couple months ago, I finally picked up “A Heartbreaking Work, etc.” because I’d heard so much about it. I couldn’t finish it – Eggers kept droning on about himself, and when I got to that interview (if you’ve read it, I assume you know what I’m talking about) that was my final “who cares?” moment. And I noticed some reviewers comparing him to Wallace. I don’t THINK so. So this has nothing to do with your question, but if, in a few years, I re-read Eggers and change my mind, I’ll report back. ;o)

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    May 29, 2014
  9. I think the problem Ed has with these diverging reviews isn’t that Eggers changed his mind or evolved on the book after another reading, but that there’s no mention of this evolution in his foreword, which remember was written in order to entice folks to buy the book. So it’s a bit disingenuous for Eggers to say that “there is not one lazy sentence” in its 1,000+ pages when he’s already on record as saying that IJ goes on too long, among other criticisms that he never addresses in the second review.

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    May 29, 2014
  10. Maybe the two became friends. Even in literary circles, friends tend to let friends off the hook. And when they become adversaries, watch out. They tend to say what Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac and “On the Road”, ” That’s just typing.” My, how I miss the days when literature mattered. The days when Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman going after each other and Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal making mincemeat out of each other.

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    May 29, 2014
  11. Tess #

    I actually agree with both his reviews. It is an amazing book, it’s smart and tight and heart-breaking. It’s also really annoying and self-indulgent. I found myself I awe and hating it at the same time. I also think the second review was a sign if respect for the writer that DFW was and for the brain that was his gift and his burden.

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    May 29, 2014
  12. Mallorie #

    As a twenty-four year old who was given IJ as a graduation gift, I can say so far that I love it and absolutely hate it all at once. Half the time I have no idea what’s going on or what I’m reading, and then the other half of the time I’m completely moved. All I know it that the page long sentences really, really piss me off.

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    May 29, 2014
  13. I have realised just recently I all but erase novels from my mind a few years after reading them. It’s lucky I blog book reviews or I’d have no recollection of half of my reading. So I wouldn’t be surprised if upon a second read I find my opinion changed – it’d be like coming to it completely new anyway.

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    May 30, 2014
  14. I have read books I didn’t understand at all and still liked them (like The Golem), or books that divagated for pages and pages but left me a good taste (Nick Harkaway, Umberto Eco, Peter Berling) and books that were absolutely un-readable but you could never say you don’t like them in public (some Novel Prizes in my experience). It’s a feeble love-hate situation that can be expressed either way. so given time, yes, it’s not about changing mind but expressing a mixture of feelings.

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    May 30, 2014
  15. I have read books twice (with a number of years in between), and sometimes my opinions of said books changed significantly. Sometimes for the good, and sometimes just the opposite. So I’m fine with Eggers’ flip.

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    May 30, 2014
  16. Liz #

    If there’s not a book about what books you should read at what time of life there should be. I think if I hadn’t read Catcher in the Rye in high school I would’ve been impatient w/ Holden. Also, I hated Hemingway in high school. It took me being older to appreciate him. As for Proust, I started reading Remembrance of Things Past then realized I needed to wait till retirement. Haven’t read Dave Eggers at all and as for Infinite Jest, I own it but I’m not mentally strong enough to read it just now (my 3 year old still doesn’t sleep very well!), nor am I physically strong enough to lug the doorstopper on the subway every day!

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    May 31, 2014

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