How to read Infinite Jest JUL 15 2009
A few weeks ago, I wrote the foreword for Infinite Summer, a summer-long collective read of Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace's big-ass novel and one of my favorite books. That piece was actually my second draft. My first attempt was a list of advice on reading the novel...the submission of which prompted InfSum's dungeon master, Matthew Baldwin, to write back with a frowny face and a pointer to this piece published -- unbeknownst to me (I have the Time Machine backups to prove it!) -- the day before I submitted my draft.
Anyway, here's that first draft on how to read Infinite Jest:
1. If you haven't already, buy the book, get it from your local library, or download to your Kindle. I got my copy in 2001 at a local San Francisco bookstore; I bought it used along with a used copy of Don DeLillo's Underworld (which I started but never finished). I was upset at something that day and purchased the books as a sort of Fuck You to whatever it was that was pissing me off. "Oh yeah? Well, I'm gonna read both of these huge books. Fuck You!" Best $10.80 I ever spent.
2. Warning! This book contains several footnotes. Hundreds, in fact. They run on, at a very small point size, for almost 100 pages at the conclusion of the main text. One of the footnotes, which contains the complete filmography of a fictional filmmaker, goes for more than 8 pages and itself has 6 footnotes. Every single oh-my-God-this-thing-is-a-doorstop review of IJ since 1996 has trumpeted this fact so you're probably already up to speed re: the footnotes but I didn't want you to be caught unawares or pants down.
3. You're going to want to but don't skip the footnotes. They are important. Yes, even the filmography one.
4. Physically, Infinite Jest is a large book: 2.2 inches thick and, according to Amazon.com, has a shipping weight of 3.2 pounds. Some readers have found it useful to rip the book in half for easier reading on the subway or on the beach. If you do this, you also need to tear the footnotes from the back half and tape them to front half. This technique has the side effect of giving you the appearance of A Very Serious Reader of Infinite Jest, which will either keep onlookers' questions to a minimum or maximum, depending on the onlooker.
5. If you opt not to destroy your copy of IJ, you should use the three bookmark method. One bookmark for where you are in the main text, another for your current footnote location, and a third for page 223, which lists the years covered by the novel in chonological order, from the Year of the Whopper (which corresponds to 2002) to the Year of Glad (2010). To say that IJ skips around quite a bit chronologically is an understatement, so keeping the timeline straight is important.
6. Along with the footnotes, another thing that most reviews mention w/r/t Wallace is his use of words that appear rarely outside of dictionaries. If you get stuck, keep a dictionary handy or consult one of the following online collections: the David Foster Wallace Dictionary, Words I Learned From Reading David Foster Wallace, and the Infinite Jest Vocabulary Glossary.
7. Get a copy of Greg Carlisle's Elegant Complexity, *the* reference book for Infinite Jest. Reading EC's notes for each IJ section after you finish will greatly increase your understanding and enjoyment of the book. Here's an informative review of the guide. As a bonus: "The book is 99% spoiler-free for first-time readers of Infinite Jest."
8. Finally, you may have heard or read that Wallace committed suicide last year. He was 46 and left a wife and dogs and at least one unpublished novel and a vast literary legacy. This will be difficult, but try not to think too much about the suicide and Wallace's life-long struggle with depression while reading Infinite Jest. The book is undoubtably autobiographical in some aspects -- tennis: check; addiction: check; depression: check; grammar: check -- but a strict reading of IJ as a window into Wallace's troubled soul is a disservice to its thematic richness.
The great thing about Infinite Jest is that it begins at the end, so even though you're only a few pages in at this point, you already know how the whole thing is going to end. So get to it, it'll be easier than you think. I wish you way more than luck.