Week 2

The Average Molecular Weight of Peat

05.01.11 | | 2 Comments


I think it’s probably best if I go ahead and tell you, right up front here, that the title of this post is a little misleading. I do not know the average molecular weight of peat. It’s not like I didn’t try to look it up. I did. I spent over an hour on-line researching the subject before becoming slack-jawed by all the scientific jargon I had to navigate. For instance, I learned that peat covers about two percent of the land on our planet. I discovered that the estimated potential energy of all of this peat is about 8 billion terajoules (126,984,127 Hiroshima bombs). I learned that it is used as fuel and also in agriculture. Most importantly, peat is used in the production of Scotch whisky.

All of these facts came rushing towards me at the speed of light and my Mac’s CPU, but they arrived as noise–unwanted bits of information to sort through and serving only as a distraction to the task at hand.

Such is the life of Claude Sylvanshine, now revealed to us as a Random Fact Psychic. Claude, as we’ve read in Section 15, is constantly bombarded by irrelevant facts from an ESP that seems to be more of an affliction than a gift. Because of this, Claude is privy not only to the average molecular weight of peat, but the exact height of Mount Erebus and the length and average circumference of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s small intestine.  As Wallace writes, this constant bombardment of information is like “having someone sing The Star-Spangled Banner in your ear while you’re trying to recite a poem for a prize.” Claude seems to spend a tremendous amount of his mental energy filtering these intrusive bits out of his everyday life. This section answers some questions I’ve had about Claude since meeting him on the plane last week. As Section 15 gives us that insight into Sylvanshine, it also entertains. The non sequitur quality of all of these facts interspersed throughout the narrative makes for the funniest reading so far this week.

But behind the character development and entertainment, Section 15 seems to be making a very big statement. Many of you know where this is going. Wallace constantly touched on it in his interviews and writing and does so again here in the fiction of The Pale King: Mindfulness. What I’d like to discuss specifically is Wallace’s worry about the increasing volume of noise in our daily lives and its effect on our ability to sustain long thoughts and the concentration required to absorb and parse serious and complex works of art and literature. Take a look at this interview where he discusses this at 2:10:


DFW on reading and distraction at 2:10


Welcome back. How much time did you spend aside from watching the video? Did you perhaps read the comments? Look at the related videos? Maybe you even went to another website altogether before coming back here.

DFW, for a period of time at least, did not own a television set (as a matter of fact, it’s for this very reason that the short story The View From Mrs. Thompson’s exists; Wallace had to go to a neighbor’s house to watch the unfolding of events of 9/11). He more or less said that he was addicted to television and that if he had one he’d never be able to shut it off. Much like Sylvanshine can’t shut off the intrusive facts that crowd his consciousness. Like I had to wade through those other facts about peat as I looked for its average molecular weight. If DFW was fearful of the information overload of television, one can only imagine how he felt about the Internet and Google, where I imagine someone as hyper-observant as DFW might have sat down in front of and, much like the medical attache’ from Infinite Jest, never get up from; like a dog locked in a butcher shop may eat itself to death.

Is this a realistic concern for all of us? I believe it might be. It is for me. I’m good, on average, for about a novel every week and a half; I take my fiction-reading seriously. Most of it is done on my commute into and out of Manhattan, on the train and if at all possible, in the quiet car. So there I am, speeding along at 75MPH +, Kindle or book in one hand, and more often than I’d like to admit: iPhone in the other. It’s the perfect example of the noisy, un-nourishing, instantly gratifying and easy vs. the harder but more rewarding forms of things to do with the two hours a day many of us spend inside metal contraptions of some sort. With me, It usually goes like this:

Read a page of the book, check Twitter. Read a half a page of the book, check Twitter again. Read a paragraph of the book, send a text, take a turn on one of the twelve games I have going on Words With Friends, IM somebody, wait for a response for fifteen seconds before checking Twitter and then my email, feel disgusted with my attention span and then put the phone in my bag. Read the book until I become unsettled and anxious, check Twitter again, wonder how my iPhone got out of my bag and into my hand, then get a reply from my text and then reply back and then read some more of the book. Tweet something on my iPhone about my iPhone being like Gollum’s ring and the irony of tweeting something like that from the actual iPhone, then put the iPhone back in my bag, this time zipping the bag up and placing it in the overhead rack. Read for the remaining five minutes until I have to get off of the train.

Does this sound crazy? It probably is. Especially considering that I have a choice; every one of us has a choice. Wallace chose not to own a television.