Infinite Summer: Reading DFW’s Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace

Is it our duty to read Infinite Jest? This is a good question, and one that many people, particularly literary-minded people, ask themselves. The answer is: maybe. Sort of. Probably, in some way. If we think it’s our duty to read this book, it’s because we’re interested in genius. We’re interested in epic writerly ambition. We’re fascinated with what can be made by a person with enough time and focus and caffeine and, in Wallace’s case, chewing tobacco.
-Dave Eggers, foreword to the paperback edition of Infinite Jest

Like David Foster Wallace, I grew up in Illinois, struggled with depression, and had a fierce addiction to chewing tobacco. The similarities end there.

He and I most certainly did not share the same brain, though at times I felt like he was inside my brain wrapping his sentences around my brain stem and speaking all the words and emotions I longed to hear. His writing, as intellectually challenging as it is oft declaimed, arose from an intimate connection to this broken world in ways one wishes that everyone saw through a set of DFW glasses.

I would never pretend to possess his intelligence, his wit, his compassion, his deft grammatical backhand, or his hair. When he hung himself, I wept uncontrollably, slobbering over my keyboard, reading page after page of tribute and anecdote about someone I had never met.

I suppose I also wept a fair bit because his suicide frightened me. It raised the specter of suicide as a kind of foreordained trajectory, a price one pays for a Wallaceonian empathy, for a DFW-tuned brain. This is an age-old notion usually dismissed as sophomoric and romantic. Still, it’s not often in your life you read someone who reminds you that you’re not alone only to wake up one morning and find that once again you are.

But why bring this up now? Why today?

Because (a) I’ve read everything DFW wrote EXCEPT Infinite Jest. Dunno why. It’s been sitting on my bedstand for almost ten years. I mean this literally, not metaphorically. It sits there. I see it when I go to sleep and when I wake up. Time I read it.

But also, because (b) I was made aware of the infinite summer (http://www.infinitesummer.org) where you can “join endurance bibliophiles from around the world in reading Infinite Jest over the summer of 2009, June 21st to September 22nd. A thousand pages1 ÷ 92 days = 75 pages a week. No sweat.”

The site is full of schedules, forums, moderators, guest columnists. You name it.

So, I’m in.

If you need more prodding, consider these lines from Dave Egger’s foreword:

He was already known as a very smart and challenging and funny and preternaturally gifted writer when Infinite Jest was released in 1996, and thereafter his reputation included all the adjectives mentioned just now, and also this one: Holy shit.

or these from Jason Kottke’s infinite summer “forward”:

So sure, it’s a lengthy book that’s heavy to carry and impossible to read in bed, but Christ, how many hours of American Idol have you sat through on your uncomfortable POS couch?