006 - Infinite Quiet

David Foster Wallace on the gratification of quiet and hard reading


I write this letter in middle of a rain drenched day. This day is different from the other days of this week - when the cars and rickshaws and people and their open mouths all have returned with gusto on the street that I live next to; this day has drowned them all in the incessant rain. It is only rain that I hear. Everything else is quiet.

The silence of such days, of which there were plenty just a month back, was the most surprising benefit of the lockdown. I have never heard my city silent, so the quiet just vanished from memory until this summer.

I put that quiet to use in a manner of reading books that I had left off. Books that were ambitious reads of mine, and stayed as ambitions than reads even two or sometimes three years since I bought them. Authors who demanded as much from their readers as they did with their words. Umberto Eco, whose The Name of the Rose was part of this list, in fact, says as much in his prologue -

“My friends and editors suggested I abbreviate the first hundred pages, which they found very difficult and demanding. Without thinking twice, I refused, because, as I insisted, if somebody wanted to enter the abbey and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey’s own pace. If he could not, he would never manage to read the whole book.” 

I begrudgingly agree with him.

(Although I wish people stop describing it as a murder mystery set in a medieval abbey, it can only set you for disappointment if you do, but as Eco pointed out further in his end notes, that disappointment was his plan.)*

In the initial days of it, at times, I felt the whole exercise filled with pretension. Why was I reading these? What will I say if anyone asks me if they should read them?**

Am I reading them because honest and serious readership required it? It’s like how thousands ascend the Kilimanjaro everyday because a trek up its path is difficult, until you see the panoply of people atop it and wonder if it was. Was it the banality of a wine connoisseur but this time with books? You know, you read it for the name.

One such name is David Foster Wallace.

As I was struggling through the pages of the western literary canon, I chanced upon an interview of his on Youtube, where he talks about reading literature. And while his words were for America, I think it speaks to us all, everywhere.

A decade after it was released online, it remains even more relevant in today’s date -not just because our distractions and propensity for instant gratification is higher, but also because the pandemic has given us scope to fill in some hours with some quiet.

There was a small line towards the end in this interview, where he says: look at a piece of art for an hour. That just sounds dreadful. We can spend hours with movies and songs. We like art that is immediate, that doesn’t seek quietness, the distraction of the ears is key, we can’t stand the quiet.

I wonder if the dread he speaks of is not the dread of the quiet, but the dread of loneliness, maybe the loneliness of silence spooks us and we sell it as boredom.

And this stayed with me as I grappled my way through my unread books. The quiet helped, and it helped immensely. I got drawn into the worlds I was reading. Soon I was immersed in them, the Abbey of Eco, the Dublin of Joyce, the Island of Bioy Casares, or the Port Ticonderoga of Atwood even. To be there as witness, silent, but present. It was an enriching experience - part meditation, but part satisfaction. A trip alone.

There’s this passage in the Name of the Rose, on beauty -

It is the description of a library. I felt compelled to write it down, because I liked it. Its meaning, validity, necessity were all secondary. It was just a beautiful insight into a mind that wrote it. Days later, when I was reading The Portrait, a similar instance arrived, where our young protagonist talks about beauty. And then the influence Joyce had on Eco became so much more relevant and the experience of having read both richer thus.

It reminded me of DFW’s argument for this immersion. The argument then that Wallace placed was not about what’s entertaining but what’s satisfying. It felt a deep hunger had been satiated, that till now I was trying to fill by just tasting things, which was great, but momentary. When things are just tasted all the time, hunger gets ignored.

Should it take a pandemic and a forced lockdown’s quiet for us to feed it? Something to munch on this Sunday, that then.

Let me leave you with two short stories I read this month:

  1. Wildwood by Junot Diaz

  2. Sahai Sahib by Avantika Mehta

  3. Let me add one more in the spirit of July 4 - this one by DFW, the only short story of his that I’ve read - The Soul is not a Smithy

    *The irony of this Immersive reading is best described in this critique/review of The Name of the Rose. It captures the spirit of everyone who has read it.

    ** The answer is no I wouldn’t. You can, but it is not necessary.