Shelf Lives: The Appeal of the Inaccessible

David Quintas, Columbia University

One of the hallmarks of Columbia College’s undergraduate experience is its Core Curriculum, a series of mandated classes meant to provide students with a working familiarity with the building blocks of (largely, but not exclusively) Western culture, science, and thought. Two of the central courses are Literature Humanities – a two-semester survey course of canonized Great Works™ of literature – and Contemporary Civilization – a two-semester survey course of Great Works™ of philosophy. Though I was excited about both courses, one negative side effect quickly made itself apparent upon my arrival at school.


I have always loved inspecting the bookshelves of others. Like some particularly pedantic detective, I sidle up and peruse titles, volumes, and spines. From these, I try to imagine the interests of and gain insight into the personalities of their owner. However, due to the preponderance of titles that each of my classmates was expected to purchase and read for Lit Hum and CC, bookshelves quickly became mirrors of each other. I knew that every freshman room I walked into would feature The Iliad and Augustine’s Confessions. Every sophomore’s would house Aristotle’s Politics or Ethics or both. While, I was learning immeasurable amounts and appreciated being able to process and discuss these classics with anyone in school, all this prescription irked me. It made it difficult for me to get a read (no pun intended) on the personalities of my classmates or at least the ones they attempted to project, as most of their bookshelf space and reading time had already been booked (pun intended).


Rather than discouraging me from my habit of analyzing the books of those I met, the dominance of the Lit Hum and CC mainstays on dorm room libraries just caused me to raise my level of scrutiny. Undaunted, I paid extra attention to any deviations from the syllabi, attributing what were surely unwarranted amounts of significance to which volumes people chose to fill the few spare spaces on their shelves.


As I honed in on those deviant titles, I found one recent author reappear over and over again amongst the classics. According to my authoritative anecdotal evidence, David Foster Wallace was the “personal pick” of my classmates more often than any other contemporary writer. This trend made me wonder: what about DFW made him such a consensus pick amongst those who wished to distinguish their reading habits?


The first thing that strikes people about DFW is what turned me off of him in high school: his inaccessibility. His best-known work Infinite Jest features endless endnotes, multiple plotlines, and an 1,000 plus page length – not “light reading” by any literal or figurative definition. His essays can be similarly difficult – though more compact – with footnotes, digressions, and the necessity of a nearby dictionary. This density is often what initially draws people to these texts, even as it repels others. The cache of reading something that is blatantly complex or hard is an appeal.


Like many of his acolytes, DFW himself was a voracious reader. His libraries included writers as diverse as Tolstoy and Stephen King, Brecht and Jackie Collins. However, one name in particular that struck me on lists of favorite writers that he would deliver in interviews is Cynthia Ozick.


Ozick’s name stood out to me, as I have also often thought of her as a writer who revels in the inaccessible. In her 1969 novella “Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” Ozick’s protagonist Edelshtein writes a biting letter to a publisher calling out the “so-called Jewish novelists” who were breaking into mainstream literary culture in the 60’s and 70’s. He gives a long list of the usual suspects (Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow) and some lesser-known ones (B.J. Friedman, Norma Rosen) and excoriates them for their shallow Jewish literacy. “One word here, one word there. Shikseh on one page, putz on the other, and that’s the whole vocabulary!…They know ten words for, excuse me, penis, and when it comes to a word for learning they’re impotent!”


Edelshtein’s indictment of the vanguards of new Jewish-American fiction should certainly be taken with a generous grain of salt. His scathing critique of their superficial handle on their Jewish “vocabulary” is largely motivated by his titular “envy” for their success. However, Ozick’s writing style itself suggests that she, for one, grants Edelshtein’s complaint a fair amount of weight. Her writing is steeped in allusions to Jewish folklore, Biblical puns, Yiddish phrases, and other references to insider-y knowledge that one not intimately familiar with Jewish literature and culture might struggle to process. Moreover, the discursive, argumentative nature of her story-structuring has always reminded me of a particular central series of Jewish discursive, argumentative Jewish texts – the Talmud.


More than anything, Ozick’s influence on DFW can be felt in the Talmudic nature of his writing. Though sometimes heated and often abstruse, Talmudic debates are predicated on the value of the counterargument, the importance of minority opinion, and an intense love of rules and details. Side-notes and digressions are hallmarks of the Talmud. A debate over when the Scroll of Esther should be read quickly shifts into an examination of the etymology of four walled cities mentioned in the Book of Joshua. After quoting a couple statements of Rabbi Tanchum regarding who is obligated to make the tri-annual pilgrimage up to the Temple to bring a sacrifice, the Talmud swerves from this conversation to include his reading of an unrelated verse in the story of Joseph. The discussants and compilers of the Talmud not only delight in digressions, but go out of their way to shoehorn in side-notes.


Like the Tannaim and Amoraim, DFW incorporates what often seem like parenthetical discussions. In “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s,” his 2001 essay about his experience watching “the Horror” of 9/11 unfold on his neighbor’s television, DFW breaks from his narrative for eight paragraphs to describe the topography, economy, weather, and church-life of Bloomfield, Illinois, where he lived at the time. In “Authority and American Usage,” an essay on “ideological strife” in the world of “U.S. lexicography,” he wedges in a brief explanation of his idiosyncratic views on the morality of abortion. All these interruptions are highly reminiscent of those in the discussions of the Sages.


It goes without saying (though I’ve already said it), that all of this can be hard to follow. Constant detours make it easy to get lost. Extreme nitpicking can alienate even an interested reader. However, these argumentative acrobatics do not exist for their own sake. The strange examples and stories of the Talmud serve to underscore and illustrate larger legal and moral concepts or give insight into the minds of those teaching them. Describing the layout of Bloomfield helps the reader understand why 9/11 was particularly hard for the town’s inhabitants to process. The circumlocutions of both DFW and the Rabbis of the Talmud stem from the belief that meaning can be found in diversion and detail.


I felt tremendously vindicated when I discovered I was not alone in the connection I had made between Wallace and the Talmud. In a 2014 article in Tablet Magazine, Joseph Winkler writes how spending time with Wallace’s writing “rekindled” his love of Talmud. He notes that “like the Talmud, Wallace finds meaning in the apparently irrelevant and idiosyncratic particulars of life.” His “incipient stream-of-consciousness” recalls a central lesson of the Talmud: no topic is inherently tangential.


It may be that I am overstating this chain of influence between the Talmud, Ozick, and Foster Wallace. However, to my mind, there is a there is a clear through-line between their work. All three frequently thrust their audiences into the middle of arguments and lingo that at first appear needlessly obscure and specific, but prove to be deeply vital and universal. All three serve as reminders that working through something difficult and inaccessible tends to eventually bear not just some paltry fruit, but a full orchard for the frustrated but persistent reader. And all three more than earn their real estate on even the most overbooked of dorm room shelves.