So, I really love David Foster Wallace, I really love Infinite Jest, it’s hard for me to have a conversation without bringing up Dave in some way, and right now I’m reading Infinite Jest again, so it’s coming up more often than usual.
The biggest thing I hear when I talk about Infinite Jest is, “oh man, I really want to read that book, I have a copy, I tried to crack it, I just don’t think I’m ready.” I hear that all the time, and people are like ooh you’ve read Infinite Jest, does that mean you’re like super smart or an awesome reader, and I mean, yeah, I am super smart and an awesome reader, but pretty much anyone can read Infinite Jest. I really mean that. Thus, this post, about how to just knuckle down and read Infinite goddamn Jest already. Because it really is not that much more of a heroic effort than other things. I’m trying to read Proust for the second time and it is like pulling teeth compared to Infinite Jest. I couldn’t get through The Fellowship of the Ring, but I’m on my third read of Infinite Jest.
So here you go y’all, here’s my guide to approaching Infinite Jest.
“It’s really, really long, right?” Yeah. And it’s incredibly detailed. There are math sections. There are endnotes. And guess what? There’s very little closure within the text of the book. This is part of the genius of the thing. You finish the book in a blaze of glory and go “what the hell” and then you flip back to the beginning and remember how it began and realize oh shit the ending occurs outside of the text. Then you start to think through all the details you remember and you begin to assemble some kind of ending. Then you want to read it again to pick up more details. And so it goes. So the best thing you can do going in is accept that you won’t get every bit of information locked in your mind. Just enjoy the ride. The reason a lot of people quit is because they get a hundred pages in and go oh shit I’ve completely lost the plot, I have no idea what’s happening, this is such a frustrating experience, there must be something I’m missing.
You’re not missing anything you’re supposed to catch. Don’t worry about it. Just enjoy the language use, the framework, the themes. This is a book that’s best suited to pattern seekers and people who really love delving deep into the theory of what they’re reading. My personal theory with this book is that everything’s kinda slippery and is intentionally left up to interpretation. There are parts where it’s outright mentioned that a character may be hallucinating details. There are parts where it’s unclear whether you’re reading a scene that actually happened, or a scene from a movie within the universe of the novel. There are important details that are so easily missed. It’s a book that you could read over and over until you die and still be finding new things in it. You can enjoy it on the first read. But you’ll enjoy it more if you decide you’re married to it and will make a point of reading it more than one time.
Oh, also: it changes tone on future reads. The first time I read it, it was the most depressing goddamn thing I’d ever put in my head. The second time, it was fucking hilarious. Like I said: everything’s slippery.
“Can I skip the endnotes?” No. I mean, you CAN skip anything you want, but you don’t really want to. I get that flipping back and forth is frustrating and that some of them seem pointless, but the endnotes contain some of the best parts of the whole book (James Incandenza’s filmography alone is well worth the price of admission).
“What if I read it on my Kindle or cell phone?” I mean again, you can do whatever you want, but it’s this big and heavy and endnote-y for a reason. One of the great themes of the book is passivity and the desire to be entertained with as little effort as possible. One of the things the book does, intentionally, is make you work. So yeah, there are humps to get over, and lugging this tome around is one of those, multiple bookmarks are another, but whatever. MAXIMUM EFFORT! It’ll be a much bigger payoff, I promise.
“Isn’t it really hard to read because of the style it’s written in?” No, you just have to pay attention and put in the work. Paying attention is critical and another major theme throughout. Look up words you don’t know. Follow the run-on sentences. Reread parts that didn’t quite make sense. And — this is important — don’t try to blaze through it just because you’re a strong, fast reader. There are parts that are stretched out over dozens of pages that tell the story, and then there are parts that just take a couple paragraphs but are ideologically heavy. Take breaks, walk away, chew before you swallow and move on. Think about what you just read. If Wallace’s style presents a problem for you, try reading some of his short stories to get a more compact picture of what he does. I recommend the collection Oblivion.
“Okay but isn’t this a book that’s just for smart people?” No, this a book that has a little something for everyone. It’s sci-fi, yo! There’s a main character who may or may not be a cyborg ffs! Everyone kinda slaps this “postmodern literary fiction” label on it, but that doesn’t really express what the book is. It’s a book about dedication, faith, addiction, entertainment, passivity, love, ghosts, politics, waste, the American mindset, advertisement, loneliness, depression, families, abuse, joy, damage, our relationship with our own bodies and minds and hearts and souls. You don’t have to be “smart” to read it — just read it like any other book, one word at a time, look up the ones you don’t understand, take time to parse anything that seems weird and complex. You don’t have to actually DO the math problems in the math section (they’re wrong on purpose)!
“I don’t know if I’m ‘ready’ to read Infinite Jest.” Hmm, what do you mean by that? This is a book that has a lot to do with coping mechanisms and smart people who are kind of emotional adolescents. If you just read it and stick with it and let it get under your skin, it’ll grow you. Jump in.
“Isn’t Infinite Jest that hipster book that isn’t actually about anything?” Fuck you.
Okay so if you want to read it, here’s what I personally think will help you get the most out of the experience:
1. Use several bookmarks. One for where you are in the novel, one for the endnotes, one for when you get to the page that establishes the chronology of subsidized time.
2. Keep a highlighter and pen handy. Highlight stuff. There are some truly incredible insights in this book. Take margin notes. Note down questions that you find important. These’ll be really fun to come back to, should you read it a second time.
3. Don’t sweat all the details. Just enjoy the ride and get as much of the story as possible.
4. Read the endnotes, goddamnit. Don’t skip stuff.
5. Take breaks as needed. I generally Infinite Jest over the course of three or four months and have a few other books going at the same time. If you have a busy life full of important stuff, I recommend taking even more time with it, which brings me to —
6. Pay attention. Even though you’re not gonna hold every detail of the story, if you’re trying to rush through parts, or if you’re reading it while you watch TV or doing something else that similarly pulls focus, you’re not gonna enjoy it as much.
7. It’s just a book, just read the words.
It’s late and I’m tired so I’mma stop talking about Infinite Jest now and go back to trying to follow Proust’s run-on sentences. The feeling I’m getting from the initial pages of Swann’s Way is basically what I felt the first time I read the section in Infinite Jest about Ken Erdedy waiting for the woman who said she would come. See? I can’t talk about books without talking about Wallace. Maybe I should just sleep. Or maybe I could go grab Infinite Jest out of the bedroom and keep reading that. We all get to live our own lives, right?