Don DeLillo to David Foster Wallace, on reading math

Kottke has a scan of some correspondence between Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace: a DDL->DFW letter from 1997 and a DFW -> DDL from 1992.

This from DeLillo is striking:

Once, probably, I used to think that vagueness was a loftier kind of poetry, truer to the depths of consciousness, and maybe when I started to read mathematics and science back in the mid-70s I found an unexpected lyricism in the necessarily precise language that scientists tend to use  My instinct, my superstition is that the closer I see a thing and the more accurately I describe it, the better my chances of arriving at a certain sensuality of expression.

So work hard on your papers, folks — a great American novelist might be nicking your prose style.

There’s also an interesting and strange bit from DeLillo about how he pays attention to the shapes of individual letters on the page, trying to make a pleasing pattern of “round” words and “tall” words.  I wouldn’t be surprised to hear this from a poet, but in a novelist it seems (to use DeLillo’s own word) superstitious.  Is it possible this is really contributing to the effects he’s trying to achieve?  Look, I’m a hardliner on the point that how a sentence sounds is more important than what it means.  But this comes off fussy, even to me.

Wallace’s side of the correspondence is mostly a fan letter.  I was pleased by his love for End Zone, my favorite DeLillo novel and undeniably the funniest.  He suggests that a piece of Infinite Jest “owes a rather uncomfortable debt” to End Zone; which piece?

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4 thoughts on “Don DeLillo to David Foster Wallace, on reading math

  1. Richard says:

    For me, written mathematics should always follow good writing and narrative practice as much as possible. For example, repetition of initial words of sentences should be minimized. Most importantly to me, sentences and paragraphs should flow nicely. This is not easy when doing long intricate arguments that require frequent use of words and expressions such as if, thus, hence, whence, therefore, by, since, it follows that, etc. Such difficulties make good written mathematics an art form that few master extremely well. I try, but certainly don’t count myself among the masters. It is annoying that some people don’t even try.

  2. Richard says:

    Perhaps high school students and undergraduates who aspire to become professional mathematicians should be encouraged to take a creative writing course that would include both story and poetry. I had such a course in high school and enjoyed it.

  3. mattbucher says:

    There is a lot of End Zone in IJ, most notably the eschaton stuff borrows heavily from the nuclear symbology/strategy in EZ. Also, the powdered milk discussion is lifted almost verbatim. You’ve got Harkness (which reminds me of “The Darkness”) and a Schtitt like coach (complete with riding crop and a tower overlooking the field of play), and a general over-intellectualizing from the athletes. DFW and DD both spent time in West Texas.

    This New Yorker article ( states that Delillo had a couple of alternate titles for End Zone: “The Self-Erasing Word,” “Modes of Disaster Technology.”

    Have you read “The Last Western” by Thomas Klise?

  4. […] via Don DeLillo to David Foster Wallace, on reading math « Quomodocumque […]

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