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Excellent piece, Ted. For anyone interested, I wrote an extensive piece on finally making it through Gravity’s Rainbow a few months ago (not thinking about the 50th anniversary approaching) which be some my own Substack launch (pun not intended) alexskolnick.substack.com

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Mar 1Liked by Ted Gioia

Gioia is constantly surprising me with the breadth of his intelligence. Discussing Gravity's Rainbow is hitting the bullseye.

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When I first read “Moby Dick” as a sophomore in High School, I told my English teacher I thought it would make a great short story. It was easy to find in my Father’s library and my Grandfather had a first edition. (Alright, already. I was 14.) When I first read “Ulysses” as a senior in High School, Dad was home on shore duty. (The first edition was in my Father’s library.) He was there to discuss it with me. There were some exceedingly bright students in my class as well as an erudite teacher. It was difficult but worth the effort. When I first read “Gravity’s Rainbow” I had almost “dropped out” after the shooting at Kent State. I was dealing with a husband who had what is now called PTSD from his military service. After a while, I decided that Pynchon was on one doozy (edited vocabulary) of an acid trip when he wrote it. I didn’t finish it. I shelved it in the modern fiction section of our library. I went back to more lucrative work translating a German scientific article for Chemical Abstracts. That was also much easier than “Gravity’s Rainbow” although I am not a chemist. I have read “Moby Dick” several times over the ensuing decades. I appreciate it more, now. I have read “Ulysses” twice since. It is still challenging, but worth the effort. It strikes different chords in different decades. I tried reading “Gravity’s Rainbow” again in the 90’s. Still did not finish. In fact, I donated it to the Nurses Book Sale in my city. At this 50th Anniversary, your article is informative, interesting and far more readable than the book. For some reason, “Gravity’s Rainbow” brings to mind another literary classic, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” I still think Moby Dick would make a great short story. However, “Call me Ishmael.”

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Thank you, Ted Gioia, for spectacular writing across a universe of disciplines; for excellent writing that informs, pokes the bear of comfort, stimulates questions, and most importantly provokes an irrepressible desire to know more. Every essay is a masterful achievement of reader engagement. Thank you again.

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Thank you for validating my inability to make it even halfway through this book.

Honestly I still enjoy thinking back to particular scenes and the characters involved (the toilet portal is a favorite). But every time I picked it up I would heave a sigh, knowing the insane cognitive load I was about to take on. Maybe one day I'll try again with Weisenburger's guide.

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Mar 2Liked by Ted Gioia

I'm working thru Infinite Jest. Any suggestions for an accompanying book to help?

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I too have tried and failed at least 4 times to completely read the novel. I once found a great link to Boeing and Seattle that made many connections to the novel. I sent it to a devoted Pynchon fan who has read everything that he has written. He told me that it explained a lot of the references in the book. Alas I no longer remember where the link was/is. Professor Irwin Corey once explained the NFL playoff possibilities on live TV a number of years ago. It was an unusually complex set of matchups that he explained using charts. He concluded by saying that "The AFL would play the CIO."

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It's a funny thing: the first time I read 'Ulysses' I couldn't make head nor tail of most of it, but felt compelled to read it again. By my third reading I not only understood, but enjoyed, most of it. With my next reading I'll employ a guidebook or commentary to help me catch the finer details. In short, there's something about 'Ulysses' that is compelling.

I managed to limp all the way to the end of 'Gravity's Rainbow' through sheer brute stubbornness but have no wish to make another attempt, whether aided by guides or not. I found something about it quite hateful; both in the content and in the author. (This of course is entirely a personal reaction.)

I hated the arrogance of someone writing a book that readers won't be able to understand unless they employ several books of commentary and devote scores of hours of their life to studying it in the hope that it might ultimately prove worthwhile. Of course novels can be challenging, but I found myself rejecting the notion of requiring readers to use a guidebook to get even a basic understanding of what's going on in the novel. Guidebooks are for when you love a novel and want to explore to the depths of it.

Then again, I have an old-fashioned belief that clarity lies at the heart of good writing. Also, I don't like puzzles. I find them pointless. I enjoy mental effort, but I want the effort to lead to a result that will make me a better human being. 'Gravity's Rainbow' to me offered no payback except the ego gratification of knowing you belong to an exclusive club for being able to say you enjoy it.

I think with 'Ulysses' Joyce wasn't being perversely difficult; he was just assuming a kind of education in the reader that someone in the Antipodes almost a century later was unlikely to have.

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I'm struggling with "The Tunnel" by William Gass. I rarely have problems reading "difficult" novels.

Both were at Cornell, Pynchon for undergrad, Gass for his PhD.

Didn't have any problems with Gravity really.

Picked up the Tunnel a couple years ago and was laughing out loud during the beginning pages but didn't get far before dropping it. Started again a month ago, wondering what made me laugh out loud the first time. Really tough sledding. In fact I dropped it a second time and am wondering if it's worth the struggle. Should great art really require that much effort? The reviews say absolutely, but sometimes I think that's just people patting themselves on the back so they don't have to admit they didn't really enjoy it? Sure, some classical or jazz needs to be heard more than once before it clicks, but how many times exactly?

Because on some level like so many songs or movies or paintings or books, you're supposed to know right away whether it does anything for you? And it's the creator's job to know that they have to grab your attention in the beginning, you can't just assume folks will persist because dammit you're a genius ARTIST?

Anyone that's finished that Gassian novel, any feedback would be appreciated.

P.S. I never liked Thomas Mann either, just recently read in the NYT about a "new" book of his that's coming out. I generally never have a problem finishing books.

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i read it at the moment of release and excitedly bored all around me talking about it. but i drifted into magicial realism shortly thereafter and then into non fiction. and listening to Bach.

Pynchon was too much work; the effort was not repaid, but i had too much time on my hands to know it.

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At around page 400 I realised that I had absolutely no idea what was going on so I switched to the German translation. Coming up on page 400 of that version I realised I still had absolutely no idea what was going on so I switched back to English.

I absolutely adore Gravity’s Rainbow.

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I started reading it several times after it was first publish, but could never make it past the first twenty or thirty pages. I tried again in the early 1980s and succeeded by reading only one brief section per night and making no effort to connect it to anything preceding it. Little by little, I got the hang of it. It was well worth the effort. I think it is a truly great novel, far and away Pynchon's best, and one of the real literary masterpieces of the 20th century.

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Mar 1·edited Mar 1

OMG I tried reading this when I was in college and only got about 20 pages in. At the time I was dating an English major who said that Gravity's Rainbow was the absolutely most brilliant novel ever written. It was probably shallow of me but based on my comparing my firsthand slog of this "brilliant novel" and this guy's assessment, I decided he was an intellectual snob and very quickly dropped him. Never looked back. No idea what happened to him--probably some know-it-all professor somewhere.

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Rendezvous with Rama remains Clarke's masterpiece in my humble opinion, and deserved the Nebula. Before Ted's overview of Gravity's Rainbow, I'd shied away from it for its sheer size and because it wasn't "hard science fiction". But now - seeing what it lost a Nebula to - I plan on giving the Rainbow a go.

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Gave up at about page 20 of The Crying of Lot 49, so don't know if Gravity's Rainbow will be my cup of tea when I take it on one day. Its reputation precedes it though, and this aversion to writing novels at that complex level is very true. It's a pity on one hand, but also don't know if readers nowadays would have much tolerance for a Gravity's Rainbow 2023. Wonder if the closed garden that is our current digital reality also hinders a contemporary reader's ability to relate? It wouldn't be the only novel to have that struggle, especially if it does have such a heavy "cognitive load," to quote another commenter, and the current trend is to lessen our "average cognitive load" via smartphones.

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