Christine Harkin: Why Infinite Jest?

This is my third time all the way through Infinite Jest, and I actually waited for you awesome people to begin this read. I wanted to sink into the novel again last Fall, but I heard rumors that this group read would transpire, and I held off, in part because I enjoy the community of a group read, but mostly because I needed an excuse to put off depressing myself until we were closer to Spring.

I first read Infinite Jest in the summer of 1997. The premise, prose, and intellectual gymnastics so captivated me that I began, upon finishing, to apply to grad school.

I wanted to study this…this…this symphony of horror and pain and depravity and humanity and sadness and loneliness and language and hope that opened my eyes to contemporary fiction.

But my graduate committee wouldn’t let me write on Infinite Jest. It was 2002, and even in the pop culture wing of the English department, nobody wanted to be bothered with 1,049 pages of new material.

So I settled for stitching my academic pursuits around the text. A paper on the design packaging of the novel via the visual appeal of supernatural genius; a master’s thesis on American literary use of alcohol to mark and disdain women’s bodies and choices.

After Wallace died I couldn’t stop reading online reactions. So I wrote a paper on the way people talked to each other online about and because of his suicide. I presented that paper at the first Wallace conference, in New York, in 2009.

But my connection with Infinite Jest is not academic. It’s personal. Nobody else I’ve found has written in ways that so worm into my brain, play my nerves in chords, and leave residual questions, perspectives, and desires.

So, I read a second time with Infinite Summer.

And I’m reading again now.

The surface reason is that I welcome the excuse to put aside the dozens of books I want to read next so that I can wallow in the homecoming of catharsis Infinite Jest brings.

There’s also something to be said for marking the anniversary as a group, celebrating together. And grieving together.

The deeper reason for joining this group read is that Infinite Jest makes me intensely lonely. As in: “I get scared there’s no bottom to the loneliness” kind of lonely. I love this novel. It’s my desert-island book. But it’s dark and ruthless and hilarious and desperate, and I don’t want to try to explain to the humans in my daily life, who operate on varying levels of awareness and connection and honesty, how my weeks feel intensely different in the months it takes me to read my favorite book.

I don’t want to read it alone. I want to feel the connection that drew me to blogging, that keeps me online when I should be doing other things. Smart, engaged people reading something that makes us think, brings us together, and starts conversations I couldn’t have by myself.

Well, in fairness, I probably could have some of the conversations by myself. But it would take a substantial effort to pretend to be so many people with so many opinions and reactions, and I’d rather use my creative energies on other pursuits.

I’ve made several friends in the far-reaching (and let’s be honest: quirky) group of Wallace fans. So it will be nice to see familiar names and hear familiar voices. And it will be wonderful to learn new names and voices, to hear new reactions, to explore more deeply thoughts that have been stewing since my last read of Infinite Jest.

And it will be wonderful not to be alone*.

*Kind of not alone. Is it more correct to say “a little less alone”? Or “slightly connected, via electronic means, to people doing something similar for at least part of their week, who at least hear if not understand what I’m saying and who also have things to say”? Maybe more like “a kind of shared experience, if only as much as anyone not in the same place can share an experience”? So not so much “not alone” as “entertaining the illusion of not being alone”? That’s closer, I think.


Christine Harkin does wordy things for a tech company. She sometimes blogs at and sometimes tweets as @Naptimewriting.

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7 thoughts on “Christine Harkin: Why Infinite Jest?”

  1. I’m at about page 80 and it’s my first time reading Infinite Jest but you have just made me look forward to the next time I read it!

    1. Excellent question…I should put them somewhere. I’ll figure out the best approach, since rewriting for publication isn’t an option right now, and let you know.

  2. I’m 300 pages in, and I can already see that it’s a book that’s meant to be reread. It *is* Infinite Jest (V?), or at least, it can be. The bits that seemed random are now connecting, the strangers are being identified, and I can already see how different it will be to read it again, “knowing what I know now” when I get to the parts that seemed so random the first time…

  3. Thanks for the great post, Christine. I love this part, especially: “[It’s] dark and ruthless and hilarious and desperate, and I don’t want to try to explain to the humans in my daily life, who operate on varying levels of awareness and connection and honesty, how my weeks feel intensely different in the months it takes me to read my favorite book.”

    When I’m reading Infinite Jest, I can feel it in my veins, coloring how I perceive and react to the world — and how I think about myself in it. I’m so glad that we have this digital community to connect and share in these experiences .

    1. Well said: I, too, find that Infinite Jest colors how I see the world, especially as I read it. I’m on page 5 or so, and the altered perception is already back.

      Thanks for stopping by. I look forward to hearing what you get out of this read.

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