Reading David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More: A Compact History of ∞ at once reminds me why I write in the first place while also being so good as to tempt me to give up and quit trying. The book tells the story, starting with the Greeks, of how Cantor ended up developing a set theory that could cope with the transfinite. That is: a book about math by a novelist. It reads like a deep conversation with a way-smarter, way-cooler friend. Wallace’s voice sounds to me now like Kurt Vonnegut did in high school—so with it and alive that I forget that I’m even reading. But that comparison makes me wonder if I’ll someday grow as thoroughly exhausted by Wallace’s shtick as I eventually did by Vonnegut’s. I’m only 1/3 of the way through, and an excellent but quite critical review by an actual mathematician suggests that it’s all downhill from there.
Once I get over the immobilizing awe (and the premonitions of disappointment), reading Everything and More makes me eager to return to my own popular writing on a highly technical subject: a book proposal on the history of proofs for the existence of God. There, my prose has been stuck at a crossroads. Wallace offers a clouds-parting reminder to be bold and verbal, to write as if there is actually somebody reading on the other end. And also: even with tough subjects, a reader awash in the thrill of comprehension is almost always just a clever, out-from-left-field metaphor away.