Here's How I Finally Read 'Infinite Jest' And How You Can, Too
If one of your reading resolutions is to finally finish Infinite Jest , David Foster Wallace's mammoth novel, I'm here to help. While I can't read the book — not even the end notes — for you, I can share my experience: years (five years) of trying and trying and trying, perpetually stopping around page 67, but, ultimately, finally succeeding.
One summer, six weeks: I read Infinite Jest .
Side note: The summer I read Jest wasn't so pretty for me. I was subletting a dingy studio, trying to figure out what to do after grad school. I was in the grips of a break-up that wouldn't take, working part-time at a calling center, and subjecting myself to scary things like MRI studies to get cash. I subsisted on popcorn and Cliff bars.
Somehow, I remember that summer fondly. It has to be the hours I spent with David Foster Wallace's writing.
Wherever I went, I carried my copy of Jest with me. When I was lonely or poor, confused or overwhelmed, Infinite Jest offered me a hyper-complete world into which I could escape. The characters, the shaggy dog plots, the pathos of confronting so many kinds of addiction that mirror our own cultural obsessions and manias — of course the novel is stupendous. It's also filled with joy. Moments in the book had me laughing so hard my cheeks hurt as I sat on the lumpy futon in that studio.
This year, 2016, is the 20th anniversary of Infinite Jest's publication. I'm sure I'm not alone in already being psyched for a new copy. After all, mine is creased at the spine, dogeared and inked up, littered with marginalia from another place and time. Think now's your time to dive into the world of Hal Incandenza and Don Gately? These tips can help.
1. Read It With A Friend
And nerd out about the book! Unless you've got a limitless memory, you'll probably struggle to keep track of all the characters (hundreds), plots (dozens), and rules of eschaton. Reading with a buddy helps keep you accountable and helps you clarify important things along the way — just who was narrating that chapter?
2. Take Notes
Wallace was a total logophile — you can check out the words he circled in his dictionary here. As I read, I wrote down words that were new to me and sentences I admired. I'll be honest: those tasks can be overwhelming! Wallace's vocab is ridiculously vast and his sentences are unrelenting home runs — and often quite long. Still, taking notes helped me feel totally invested in the text.
3. Or Take Someone Else's Notes
Google Infinite Jest resources and you'll come up with 62,500 results. Whether's it's the novel's wiki or one of the original Wallace celebration sites, The Howling Fantods, supplement your reading when you're lost or just interested in getting additional context.
4. Use Caution When Admitting Non-Jest Reading Material Into Your Life
Yes, that means Jest resources! Know when to let yourself be confused. With the exception of dictionaries, I didn't use online resources — though I did consult a few good friends who knew the book pretty well. Trust that you'll put together the plot — or you won't, and maybe that's OK.
5. No, Really: Use Extreme Caution When Admitting Non-Jest Reading Material Into Your Life
All the times I failed at reading Infinite Jest fell during the academic year. I'd start Jest, thinking I could read it alongside the other novels and stories I was reading for classes. On at least six separate occasions, that kind of thinking caused me to abandon ship. And let me tell you: Reading even 70 pages of Jest can feel like an undertaking. The summer I succeeded in sticking with the book, I noticed my reading pace picked up considerably after the first 140 pages. There's definitely a learning curve for getting lost in Wallace's maximalist style — his prose demanded my undivided attention.
6. Make A Schedule
Infinite Summer makes one for you, but I just divided the book's pages (endnotes included!) evenly. For the first 10 days, I followed it religiously, checking off the pages as I read them.
7. And Then Let Yourself Disregard That Schedule
But only when disregarding it means you read more than your day's page allotment. Seriously, one of the most incredible parts of reading Infinite Jest is when it picks up speed and takes over your life. That sad summer I was recalling? There were nights I turned down invitations to go out just to stay home and read... and read... and read. Those weren't depressed stay-home-and-read decisions, either. They were giving myself over to the book and turning pages until 2, 3, 4 a.m. — until my eyes were too tired to stay open. As intimating as Infinite Jest may seem before you open it, once you've started it you'll get to a point — I promise — where you just can't stop.
Images: Matthew Benton/Flickr; Giphy (7)