David Foster Wallace on the Redemptive Power of Reading and the Future of Writing in the Age of Information
The fun of reading as “an exchange between consciousnesses, a way for human beings to talk to each other about stuff we can’t normally talk about.”
By Maria Popova
Despite his heartbreaking end, or perhaps in part because of it, David Foster Wallace endures as one of the most revered and celebrated modern sages, from his wisdom on writing and self-improvement to his superb definition of true leadership to his chilling-in-hindsight insights on death and redemption to his unforgettable commencement address on the meaning of life. In May of 1996, Wallace appeared on The Charlie Rose Show to discuss “the future of fiction in the information age.” With his characteristic penchant for meandering eloquence, he addresses questions of prescient and growing significance in today’s world, where the experience of reading is being redefined, not necessarily for the better, by a medium whose full blossoming Wallace never lived to see.
Transcribed highlights below.
On relying on intrinsic rather than extrinsic motives, echoing Oscar Wilde’s famous contention that “a true artist takes no notice whatever of the public”:
If you think about … the size of the audience or how much it will appeal to the reader, you go nuts fairly quickly.
On the tension between commercial entertainment and true art, something Wallace tussled with in writing that year:
The generation I think of myself as part of was raised on television — which means that, at least I was raised to view television as more or less my main kind of artistic snorkel to the universe. And I think television, which is a commercial art that’s a lot of fun, that requires very little of the recipient of the art … affects what people are looking for in various kinds of art.
Commercial entertainment — its efficiency, its sheer ability to deliver pleasure in large doses — changes people’s relationship to art and entertainment, it changes what an audience is looking for.
It would be one thing if everybody was absolutely delighted watching TV 24/7. But we have, as a culture, not only an enormous daily watching rate but we also have a tremendous cultural contempt for TV… Now TV that makes fun of TV is itself popular TV. There’s a way in which we who are watching a whole lot are also aware that we’re missing something — that there’s something else, there’s something more.
On the necessary component of fun in reading, on which Wallace would later come to expound in his fantastic essay “The Nature of the Fun,” with a decided bittersweetness over how increasingly hard it is to access that higher-order pleasure as we struggle to distill wisdom in the age of information:
Fiction for me, mostly as a reader, is a very weird double-edged sword — on the one hand, it can be difficult and it can be redemptive and morally instructive and all the good stuff we learn in school; on the other hand, it’s supposed to be fun, it’s a lot of fun. And what drew me into writing was mostly memories of really fun rainy afternoons spent with a book. It was a kind of a relationship.
I think part of the fun, for me, was being part of some kind of an exchange between consciousnesses, a way for human beings to talk to each other about stuff we can’t normally talk about.
On that immutable sense of belonging, or what Kafka called “the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” that reading gives us and TV does not:
There’s this part that makes you feel full. There’s this part that is redemptive and instructive, [so that] when you read something, it’s not just delight — you go, “Oh my god, that’s me! I’ve lived like that, I’ve felt like that, I’m not alone in the world…”
On the idea that as a creative person, you should “draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use”:
The way I am as a writer comes very much out of what I … want as a reader and what got me off when I was reading. A lot of it has to do with … really stretching myself … really having to think and process and feel in ways I don’t normally feel.
Complement with Wallace on becoming who we are and the perils of ambition.
Published September 19, 2014