It’s Not About What It’s About

I was killing time in Half-Price Books the other day, squatting down and looking at a copy of Infinite Jest I’d pulled off the bottom shelf. I sort of collect the various printings of IJ. This one was a tenth anniversary, an edition I’d never had in my hands in before. I heard a voice over my shoulder.
    “Big reader, are you?”
     I turned to see an attractive, hip looking guy, somewhere in his late twenties it seemed, waiting for my answer.
    “Yeah, I guess I am.”
    “What’s your go to?”
     Still squatting, I held up the copy of IJ for him to get a glance at.
    “You’re looking at it,” I said, I’d like to think laconically, but I wasn’t in a great mood, so I probably just came off as a jerk.
    “What’s it about?”

And that’s the crux of the issue. There are always two ways to answer this question. In the case of IJ, I could’ve told him about it was about Quebecois wheelchair assassins, prep school tennis, and twelve-step recovery programs, but I chose to respond differently.
    “Uh … well, addiction, how people encounter entertainment, being careful about what you choose to love.”
    “Sounds deep.” He looked a little sheepish. I sort of just said “yeah” and went back to examining the book at hand but then I started to feel like an asshole, so I got up and pulled a copy of Skippy Dies off a shelf on the other side of the aisle and handed it to him. It was a clean copy, with thick boards and creamy paper. I was really tempted to buy it, but then I realized it was probably the copy I’d sold back to Half-Price a few weeks ago and didn’t want to deal with the strange kind of sadness that brought on, so I left it there.

    “Here you go. This one’s really good. It’s a little lighter. It’s like a kid in school and just, you know, his misadventures and whatever.” I left him with Skippy Dies and went to look at the history books, where I found a copy of Command and Control, which I’m halfway through now and really enjoying, although it is about as terrifying as nonfiction can be.

I saw my inquisitor leave the aisle out of the corner of my eye a few minutes later. I couldn’t tell if he had Skippy with him or not. I hope so. At least I tried. To give him something quality he might like, I mean. Not to not be an asshole. I gave up on that a long time ago.

But the point is this: I’m not interested in what happens in a book or a movie and you won’t see me write about those elements. Sure things happen with gun control in Miss Sloane, but it’s about sociopathy and redemption. People die in Manchester by the Sea and other people try to deal with that, but it’s about sadness, guilt, and the death of hope.

I like to think I see things in pieces of high and low culture that other people don’t. Of course, with seven billion people on the planet, the odds of that being true are pretty low. Anyway, don’t come to my site if you want to know what happens in a book or a movie. If you want to know what it’s about, though, I’ll try and help you with that.

2 comments

  1. Good post. I haven’t taken time to read IJ yet. Maybe I’ll get to it some time. Perhaps a tougher question….whether it’s IJ, Skippy or something else….. is “what makes it worth the time?” As I’m over the mid-way mark of life, it’s becoming a more important question every day.

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    1. Thank you. I guess for me, what makes something worth the time is whether it makes you think about something you’ve never thought about before. It could be something that seems true that you feel like you hadn’t yet realized or some question you’d not considered before. That doesn’t mean something can’t be entertaining. I got into the new season of House of Cards the other day and watched a bunch of it. There’s something in us that makes us want to know what happens next. But after hours of watching, I kind of feel like I wasted that time. I didn’t learn anything by watching all those episodes. It was satisfying at all. Kind of like junk food.

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