I work as part of the carpet-cleaning crew for the Tanner Building on BYU campus. One of my many duties includes driving a machine called the Tennant, which is sort of like a mix between a vacuum that injects water into the carpet while instantaneously sucking it up, and a car. Here’s a picture!
Its speed setting dial runs along a spectrum from “turtle” to “rabbit,” and in order to get the carpet thoroughly cleaned, you have to keep it slow, the dial pointed with an angle of 25 degrees or less, favoring the turtle side. That means that at a maximum, this tealmobile cruises along at 0.09 miles an hour, and that the driver puts one foot in front of the other every four seconds or so. It’s a scream.
Needless to say, after only two minutes of driving this thing on my first day, my eyes started to roll back in my head, and my jaw groaned open, and my fingers started tapping and I started jumping up and down and I would have given anything to be doing anything else. I immediately understood the nigh-reverential pity that people had always held for whoever’s turn it was to drive the thing: “Rosie, can you help me clean the I-Capsol? I would ask Michael, but he’s going to drive the Tennant tonight.” And that was the end of that; everyone would nod sympathetically and whenever Michael would walk by, they’d give him the look that you’d give a kitten if you saw one in a jail cell.
This first day of “tennanting” for me was incidentally the day that I had grabbed Earthsea from my shelf after a season of fiction-famine; I held the machine in one hand, and read from the other, which was the only thing that kept me from not going postal behind that machine-offspring of an Apatosaurus and a snail. But Earthsea is a thin paperback, the kind whose covers will slam shut with magnetic force unless you prop the thing open with an iron clamp or if you get three sets of hands to hold it down. And driving the Tennant one-handed is like driving a motorcycle one-handed; my lines in the carpet that day must have looked like a Richter-9 seismogram.
Right in front of the Tennant’s handlebars, though, is a shelf about two feet wide—the perfect plane on which a standard hardback book can rest ajar, its own gravity keeping its pages from arrhythmic flight. After Earthsea, I spent every Tennant session in the next month reading TJ-biography The Art of Power, followed by Michael Crichton’s Sphere, the only two books I can say I have read entirely “by vacuum.”
So my number-one criteria in looking for a new book was that it to stay open at 0.09 mph, meaning that it had to be thick and it had to hardback, which I know sounds like a kindergarten method of taxonomy, and you wouldn’t believe it but library catalogs will tell you all about publication date and where the book was printed and who edited it and which edition but they don’t tell you anything about the hardbackness of the book. (When I work for a library website aka never I will start a revolution in this thing.)
I went in person to browse. The Wheel of Time? It’s been on my list, so I grabbed it, but the only copy was a 4X6 paperback, and at ~800 pages I could already hear the Tennant explosively careening into a wall or an unsuspecting office secretary or something. I moved onto nonfiction, and there was David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Tina Fey had nodded to it in Bossypants, and I had never read an essay collection all the way through before. And it was bound, hallelujah, in that cover the BYU library puts on books to keep them from getting worn, a titleless, heavy slab.
Wallace’s writing is powerfully panascopic; the topics of the collection’s seven essays are:
- The effect of television on fiction-writing
- The Indiana State Fair
- The poststructuralist criticism of H.L Hix
- The making of David Lynch’s Lost Highways
- The 79th best tennis player in the world, Michael Joyce
- One time he went on a cruise (the titular essay)
That diversity keeps you from ever getting tired of reading his brain, but then Wallace’s voice is so far from tiresome that he could have written seven essays about the phases of the moon and I still would have read them all. He’s funny, not with the precise craft of a Tina Fey joke, but with the underscoring electric current of a late night talk show. And he’s absurdly detailed, with a vocabulary that, for lack of a better way to say this, is huge.
When was the last time you saw anyone besides me reading an essay collection by the pool? Like the ballad, they are a now-neglected art form but still one of my favorites (obviously), because—and I’ve said this before—our generation writes them really well. Montaigne and Emerson have some cool ideas, but they lack the sense of precision, form, scope, and line that is pretty much a watermark for anything praiseworthy post-Berlin-Wall.
He can be a bit much, Wallace, to read all at once. 5/7 of the essays are >50 pages, and I think if I had read more than one a day I would have given up being an English major. (So many artistic flairs!) But Wallace is buoyant—for all of that dense vocabulary, the content is spread thin enough that his page-turn-velocity rivals Dan Brown’s.
Last word: read the first one, “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley.” The rest are good, but this one is dang good, testing the limits of the art form. Set in the plains of Indiana, the essay harmonizes and counterpoints principles of tennis and calculus in a story from Wallace’s high school years. This one’s got gravitas, more than all the others, and it is obvious that Wallace can keep up with Donne, Herbert, Dryden, all those metaphysical guys.