Dave Cameron: My First Second Time

You never forget your first time: the awkward fumbling of where to put your hands while flipping back and forth from the front to the back, back to the front, trying to concentrate and focus on what’s happening without losing momentum, and also take it all in and retain what’s happening because it’s all so overwhelming but you don’t want to forget any of it. You keep stopping to take notes because you can’t get through it all at once, but you know you can’t stop either. It will go on for weeks, your energy ebbing and flowing, but eventually the effort is worth it and you can finally say you have read all of Infinite Jest and it was wonderful.

When I remember the first time I read Infinite Jest there are two things that come to mind immediately: the unique physical experience of reading the novel, and the value of reading it with a group thanks to the Infinite Summer community of 2009. Now that the prospect of that community experience is being revised with Infinite Winter, I can’t wait to start the journey all over again as I get my first chance to read the novel for the second time. 

Making my way through this novel the first time required real work I wasn’t prepared for, both mental and physical, and it needed a routine and a support system to keep me going when the density of the story or the text slowed me down. That’s exactly what the blog posts and comments and community of Infinite Winter will provide; if reading Infinite Jest is like climbing K2, the participants of this community are the sherpas and support team getting you to the summit. You still need to be the one moving yourself up the mountain one step at a time, but you won’t be doing it alone. 

In fact, I think it’s the complexity of the book, and the mechanics involved in reading it, that actually make it such a great reading experience.Infinite Jest requires action on the part of the reader to keep up with the hundreds of Notes and Errata footnoted throughout the text. Many of those notes are practically short stories in themselves with their own subnotations (looking at you, footnote #110!), building into a meta-commentary within the primary and secondary text that you interact with as you flip between them. It continuously changed and evolved how I related to the story, the mind of the characters, and the mind of the author himself, and exploded how I participated with the novel as a reader in ways that no other book I’ve read could do. Even when it was a difficult read, it was difficult in a very satisfying way.

In fact, I think David Foster Wallace has all but said that this physical interaction with the book was an intentional part of the reading experience, and it’s a big part of why I personally recommend you get yourself a copy of the paperback (the 10th anniversary edition is still available for about $14) if you haven’t read this before. You can get a Kindle edition, which has the advantage of being searchable, but completely changes the experience.

No matter your format, I strongly suggest also having a few other tools on hand, starting with a dictionary; David Foster Wallace loved obscure words like “anhedonia” and “cycloid” and you really do need to know what they mean to understand a sentence where they’re used.

Next, if you’re using a printed edition, get yourself a small stack of those little yellow sticky notes, and use one of them to mark the page where the “Notes and Errata” section begins. You’re going to be flipping back and forth to that section repeatedly and it’s helpful to know how to find them. Then have two standard bookmarks ready – one to mark your place in the novel as usual, and a second bookmark to mark your place in the annotations. With this mise-en-place complete, you are ready to begin.

I’m returning to my paperback edition for this #InfWin read, and I’m looking forward to encountering all the marginalia and annotations I wrote in my copy of the book the first time. Flipping through it I can see a couple places where I marked out the parts echoing Shakespeare, my scribbled definitions for new vocabulary words, and tons of underlined passages; I wrote just “Whoa” in the margin on pages 488 and 694, and I can’t wait to understand why again.

I’ve got my pencils sharpened, a fresh pile of sticky notes, and my dictionary app is up to date. I’m ready to start reading through the cold months ahead, and I can’t wait to discover what new ways Infinite Jest may change me all over again. I hope it does the same for you. Welcome to Infinite Winter!


Dave Cameron (@davecameron) is a higher ed web content strategist and avid reader in Ithaca, NY – the birthplace of David Foster Wallace. He writes regularly about trying to be a better human at dave-cameron.com.

Mike Miley: Yet Another Filmography for Infinite Jest or What to Watch During Infinite Winter

After a week of working one’s way through a challenging novel, the last thing a person wants to do is watch a challenging film, let alone 13 challenging films. What we really want to do is kick back in a chair and unwind with a few hours of Netflix. That’s practically our default setting.

But a person doesn’t have to get too deep into IJ before he or she starts to view switching on Netflix as a complicated moral choice. “What am I doing?” he or she thinks as the red logo appears. “What does this behavior reveal about me as an American, as a human? What should I choose? Will I ever be able to be entertained again?”

Fear not, dear readers: here’s a list of cartridges to watch that will take you deeper into the themes and style of Infinite Jest. Although they are roughly arranged to pair with a particular week’s reading, feel free to skip around based on what you have access to via cartridge or spontaneous dissemination.

Week 1: Slacker (Richard Linklater, 1991)


The Boyhood director’s multiple appearances on this list may seem like an odd choice: Linklater’s style—long, dialogue-driven scenes, understated cinematography, ordinary subject matter—may seem to be the antithesis of Wallace’s pomo pyrotechnics; however, he shares important thematic terrain with Wallace, namely a dedication to authenticity in an increasingly commercial and inauthentic world. This film, his first, makes as good an introduction as any to the world of Infinite Jest.

Like IJ, Slacker is a Gen-X work featuring a large cast of strange characters whose connection to each other is not always easy to decipher. Watch this film when you’re feeling overwhelmed and starting to regret what you’ve gotten yourself into with this doorstop of a novel. Like most of Linklater’s films, Slacker will remind you that feeling lost not only can be amusing: being lost can show you things you don’t see when you know where you’re going.

Week 2: David Holzman’s Diary (Jim McBride, 1967)


During week 2, you’ll encounter the delightful (and infamous) endnote containing the detailed filmography of James O. Incandenza. There are many avant-garde films from the 1960s and 1970s that give one a sense of what Himself’s films might be like, but Jim McBride’s masterpiece has the added bonus of capturing Himself’s motivation to make films and the tragic fallacy behind it. (And it’s on Netflix!)

Week 3: A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)


If Wallace and Kubrick have something in common, it seems to be that no droogie can, in fact, viddy well. Like IJ, A Clockwork Orange interrogates our relation to what we see, but what’s even better is how they both include themselves and their styles in their critique. Although there’s a good chance you’re already familiar with Kubrick’s dystopian classic, reading IJ makes it even more horrorshow than it was before.

Week 4: The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005)


Noah Baumbach’s divorce dramedy illuminates the absurd sadness of highly educated families like the Incandenzas. Plus, it’s the only film on the list with any tennis in it.

Week 5: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)


At one point, Wallace wanted this photo of Lang directing a crowd scene from Metropolis to serve as the cover to Infinite Jest, and this classic silent film’s warning about the dehumanizing effects of technology amply demonstrates how IJ is one of its inheritors. (IYI, this image of Lang also adorns the cover of The Cinema Book, one of Wallace’s major sources for the film-related information in IJ.)

Week 6: Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)


As you’re approaching Interdependence Day and the halfway mark in the novel, you may be wondering how this kaleidoscopic narrative is ever going to come together. Robert Altman’s sprawling multicharacter epic, made during the buildup to America’s bicentennial, should go a long way toward assuaging your fears while simultaneously opening your eyes to the novel’s critique of American politics.

Week 7: A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, 2006)


If every plot thread in Infinite Jest were magically collapsed into one story, the result would probably be a lot like Philip K. Dick’s paranoid nightmare of an addiction novel. Linklater’s rotoscope-animation adaptation ups the pomo dystopian ante to create one of the most vivid and haunting stories of Hitting Bottom cinema has to offer.

Week 8: Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980)


Although it may appear to be the most conventional film on the list, its more traditional style should help illuminate the familial drama at the heart of IJ that can easily get lost amidst the novel’s more exaggerated elements. Troubled teens, choosy Moms, and therapy, therapy, therapy — this pressure cooker of a family drama may be dated, but Wallace’s families would be very different without works like this one to light the way.

Week 9: Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)


What if The Entertainment were a snuff film? You could watch this gem every week while reading IJ. It takes on the same concerns about media and the self as Wallace does and just gets way twisted with them.

Week 10: Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001)


Slacker‘s animated cousin helps introduce us to Wallace’s interest in modern philosophy, and while Linklater’s film may be more focused on questions of reality vs. fantasy than Wallace is, the way it resolves that debate resonates well with Wallace: we have to choose.

Week 11: Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)


Drugs, television, desperation, hallucination—Requiem has everything IJ has… except jokes. Wallace claimed that he wanted to write a sad book in IJ, and Aronofksy’s X-rated AA testimony shows us what IJ might look like with all the humor amputated.

Week 12: Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995)


As the novel begins to slow down, take a look at the first film in Linklater’s celebrated trilogy. Not only does it capture the Gen-X quest for sincerity, its focus on time and the “holy moment” of the present helps show how the recovery speak of IJ doesn’t just help addicts kick Substances: it helps people connect to each other in real time.

Week 13: Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999)


Including Magnolia and David Foster Wallace in the same discussion may at first appear misguided, as Wallace famously encouraged Don DeLillo to “run the opposite way for several blocks if you see the word ‘Magnolia’ on a marquee” because he saw it as “100% gradschoolish in a bad way, and hideously overrated.” With all due respect, he’s totally wrong.

Anderson, who was Wallace’s student for a semester at Emerson, is the cinematic analogue to David Foster Wallace. Like Wallace, Anderson produces unusually long works full of self-aware stylistic indulgence, and, as Christina Lane states in her book-length study of Magnolia, “shows deep-hearted concern toward his characters, his films, and his audience [and] refuses to take up the skepticism, cynicism, and nihilism that define” his contemporaries. Doesn’t that sound a lot like Wallace’s claim in IJ that the “queerly persistent U.S. myth [is] that cynicism and naivete are mutually exclusive”? It is important to recall that Wallace was quite well known for dismissing work that bore any resemblance to his own, like his disavowals of Thomas Pynchon and John Barth. Perhaps Magnolia‘s overbearing style, sincerity, and focus on damaged, substance-addicted families and their hideous men too closely resembled Wallace’s own work at the time.

And but so this has been a long way of saying that Anderson’s film is the perfect cinematic experience to go along with finishing Infinite Jest.

Happy reading, happy viewing!


Mike Miley teaches literature at Metairie Park Country Day School and film studies at Loyola University New Orleans. His writing on David Foster Wallace has appeared in Critique, Just Words, The Smart Set, and the forthcoming Approaches to Teaching David Foster Wallace.

Alex Yard: Assuage My Loneliness

That it took me this long to discover David Foster Wallace makes little sense. I am a Massachusetts native in his late twenties with a Bachelor of English. I’ve worshipped at the temples of Franzen and Eugenides for a few years. (To learn recently that these three masterminds were pals is astoundingly enchanting. An improbable gathering of the Olympians.) In examining the trail that brought me here, I realize that all along Wallace was slowly pulling me into his orbit. I’m now blazing into his atmosphere with delight.

It only took half of the Supposedly Fun Thing essay collection to realize I was an all-in Wallace convert. What next? I’d heard multiple references to Infinite Jest‘s ambitious scope and didn’t want to dive in prematurely, lest I bail out as I had with Gravity’s Rainbow due to insufficient prerequisite preparation. I opted to look elsewhere in the DFW catalog first, especially his shorter novels.

But I altered course abruptly when I heard artist Robyn O’Neil speak on the wonderful Wallace-centric podcast The Great Concavity (a must-listen, folks). Infinite Jest was Robyn’s initial exposure to Wallace on the recommendation of a friend. She jumped in with no expectations and adored it immensely the first go-around. If she could have that memorable an experience without a freshman orientation, I felt more secure in my existing DFW-preparation levels. I’d already sampled Wallace’s thought process through his more directly-stated nonfiction. I’d enjoyed The End of the Tour movie which was startling and unforgettable. I’d absorbed a semester’s worth of intriguing background setup via the Concavity podcast. I’m up for this.

I also do not find daunting the investment required in reading a tome. On average I consume thirty books annually, and typically include one 1000+ page novel each year. Previous examples? The Brothers Karamazov I found to be a haunting masterpiece. Atlas Shrugged I thought, just maybe, was possibly just a smidge (ahem) lengthier and more shortsightedly preachy than necessary, but I had to read it “just to see,” and don’t regret doing so. Haruki Murakami’s so-called saga 1Q84, I have no reservations calling an inexcusable trainwreck. Still, even in a loathing rage, I’ll always see a book through to the final page, unless I genuinely don’t understand what’s going on. Since that’s not really a complaint I hear about Infinite Jest, I like my chances.

The above statements contribute to my rock hard commitment to tackle this novel in its entirety, on schedule. You herby have the right to expect that of me fully. I will not limp into the colosseum with statements of “I wonder if I’ll have enough time to read” or “I may not make it to the other side.”

In return I’d like to make clear what I expect from this novel and from the discussion community surrounding it: Assuage my loneliness. At the very least, help make sense of it. Much has been said about Wallace’s (debatably sappy) assertion that books have the power to make us feel less alone. I’ve certainly had my share of solemn Friday nights made only marginally less lonely by the presence of a novel in my hands.

Of course, a book needs an additional ingredient to attack that loneliness, namely Other People To Share It With. Virtually none of my friends and family are “into books” to any devoted extent. My “readerly drive” is a crucially important aspect of my existence, but as my current paradigm doesn’t include anyone who shares these points of reference, that element of my identity lies dormant during a majority of the communication in which I partake. It’s tragic, and wasteful, and I don’t like it.

That changes this winter.


Alex Yard is a Massachusetts writer and composer. His commentary and music are presented on Twitter @Zeavo.

Dana Coffield: The Things We Read for Our Friends

Somehow I managed not to know a thing about Infinite Jest and its heft, or David Foster Wallace and his tragic end, though I have in the past few years read authors Zadie Smith and Mary Karr, who were influenced by and/or dated Wallace, and I enjoyed their work quite a lot.

So why not take the bait dropped by my old newspaper pal Mark Flanagan, whom I have known and worked with, on and off, since about the time this book landed back in 1996? Participating in the Infinite Winter book club would allow me to spend online time with him, even though we live roughly three miles from each other in the very same town and surely could see one another at a coffee shop or bar, or even pass in the produce aisle of the grocery store, if we weren’t so deeply rooted in the virtual world that Wallace seemed to forecast back when Mark and I first worked together, at a time when there was no social media and each department at the newspaper had but a single e-mail account.

I knew I was in trouble when I bought the book during a visit to my brother in Bay Area before the winter holidays, calling a Barnes & Noble at a mega mall and asking that a copy be set aside so I could pick it up on the way to the airport. My flight was five minutes or 100 hours delayed, and I figured I could chip away a chapter or all of them while I waited for the weather in Denver to clear or my airline to get its act together. I almost pushed the book back when the clerk dropped all three pounds and 1,079 pages on the counter in front of me. As I thumbed through it on the ride to SFO, I nearly lost my breath when I realized that chapters many, many pages long were a single paragraph and that the footnotes might not be optional, and shoved the book into my backpack hoping it wouldn’t push me over the 20-pound carry-on limit.

This read is already a challenge for me. The world has become more technologically complex in the 20 years since Infinite Jest was published and along the way, the premium on quick communication has skyrocketed. In those first few years Mark and I worked together, I struggled as a tech columnist to discuss difficult concepts within the confines of 200-word count. My editor insisted it was an elegant exercise in intellectual discipline. Today, my yoke is Twitter and I communicate clearly in 140 characters. It makes me wonder if Wallace’s dark stew of compound sentences will hold up in a contemporary reading light. Do I have the patience to sort through the arcane use of three-dollar words and extraneous descriptions to find the narrative thread and follow it to its end? The remaining 966 pages will tell.


Denver Post business editor Dana Coffield has been a full-time professional reader since 1996 and a solo recreational reader since roughly 1969. Despite the attempt of a well-meaning librarian to warn her away from chapter books when she was in kindergarten, Dana has read many, many long fiction and nonfiction books and occasionally talks about them in the pages of The Denver Post Books and Business sections, and on Twitter @denpostdana. Infinite Winter is her first book club.

Tommy Carrico: A Supposedly Fun Thing, Why I’m Trying (again) to Read Infinite Jest

While working on the banquet staff of a local golf club, I procured a copy of Infinite Jest because I grossly overestimated the energy and drive that I would have during my non-working hours. I made it about 100 pages in before my fantasy football team replaced the Incandeza family as the primary focus of my unpaid attention.

A few years of excessive schooling later, some colleagues and I were looking over each other’s syllabi for the upcoming semester. One laughed at my Religious Ethics syllabus and said, “You’re assigning a section of Infinite Jest? What the [expletive] are you doing to these kids?”

“Nothing I wouldn’t do to myself.”

Someone else chimed in, “That’s a terrible way to treat people… you should assign his review of The Dictionary of American Usage instead.”

I figured I would kill two birds with one tome – lecture on the book as I tried to slog through it a second time. I even made it past page 400 before the end of the semester papers, grading, exams replaced both the Incandezas as well as my fantasy football team (aren’t I a dedicated student and instructor!).

Infinite Winter, then, is my third attempt to read this work, beginning-to-endnote-back-to-place-in-the-book-to-end. I admire DFW’s writing style, am wildly envious of his mastery of endnotes and formatting, find his sense of humor humorous, and am confident in the power of Internet-accountability to keep me reading. “Third time’s the charm,” right? Or is it “three strikes, you’re out?”

My first attempt was on a whim to fill time, the second because I thought it relevant to my studies/lectures, and the present… some combination of the two. It’s not that I have an inordinate amount of spare time all of a sudden, or that this work directly impacts my dissertation, or that I expect the book to alter my life in some kind of grand, paradigm-shifting way. I guess, if pressed, I would say that I’m joining this group because it seems like fun.

When I read a tweet about #InfWin, it struck me as an interesting way to go about reading a book (I guess a large group of strangers on the Internet can make many activities more interesting…). I then looked through some of the posts from 2009’s Infinite Summer, an insightful group of folks that formed a sort of “write as you go” commentary of the book that reflects many different and interesting perspectives on both the process of reading and the content of the novel. Being in touch with several participants over the last week or so via twitter and e-mail has confirmed that this may likely end up being the case in the colder and drearier of the infinite seasons.

Or I’ll give up again.


Tommy Carrico is a stay-at-home-dad/grad student who tweets from @tjcTBA and blogs sporadically at tommy-carrico.blogspot.com

Chris Ayers: How to Be Human

I first encountered Infinite Jest in the spring of 2011. I was 33 at the time, near the same age as David Foster Wallace when he wrote it. I’m aware of people much younger than that reading Infinite Jest for the first time. In fact, a lot of the people who follow my Infinite Jest fan art blog, Poor Yorick Entertainment, seem to be in high school or just entering college. This is hard for me comprehend, because Infinite Jest is such a difficult book. I certainly would not have been ready for it at age 18.

Chris Ayers Infinite Jest cover entry
Infinite Jest 20th anniversary cover design entry by Chris Ayers

As it is, I discovered the book just when I needed it most. I hate sounding like a cliche, and I’m likely to wince when I tell people this in person, but reading Infinite Jest changed my life. It made me a better person and changed my outlook on life. How rare it is it to encounter something in adulthood that can actually rewire your brain? I suddenly became evangelical about Infinite Jest, trying unsuccessfully to force it onto friends. I was probably insufferable. I bought seven or eight copies as gifts, hoping that at least one of these friends would delve into it and have the same transformation that I’d had and be willing to have deep conversations about it.

That didn’t happen.

Reading Infinite Jest is a lonely experience. Many times I would be sitting in a cafe and come across something in the text that was so sad, beautiful, clever or funny that I wanted to turn to strangers at the table next to me and say, “Read this. Just this part right here. Isn’t this great?”

Infinite Jest doesn’t have all the answers, though sometimes it feels like it does. But as I was reading it, it was asking the same questions that I was and that was a profound discovery. I was stuck in a rut, deeply frustrated and unsatisfied with where my life had led me, and navigating through a mild depression that I was only starting to realize or admit to myself that it actually was a depression. I had little motivation beyond the daily requirements of my full time job. Most days would end with me coming home to turn on a movie or TV show and and not move from my couch for hours. At some point I began to feel guilty about this. “Is this what life is about?,” I would ask myself. “Escapism?”

Escapism is one the central themes of Infinite Jest. Its various characters all have their ways of escaping from the daily pain and reality of being a human being. For some it’s drugs. For others it’s sports. For others, television. Anything to keep your mind from wandering to your stressful adult responsibilities, or even worse, the Big Questions: Is there a God? What does any of this mean? What’s the point of my existence? To be, or not to be?

Wallace doesn’t attempt to answer these questions in Infinite Jest. Instead, he tells you that it’s ok to be weak, it’s ok to feel pain, it’s ok to doubt yourself, it’s ok to get lost along the way, but ultimately, you have to find your way back. And then you may get lost again.

When I say that Infinite Jest made me a better person, what I mean is that it made me more empathetic. I think that’s the most important thing a person can be, and yet we lose track of that so often. Wallace’s characters are all so damaged and lost, yet relatable. By the end of the novel you will have a better understanding for what it’s like to be clinically depressed or hopelessly addicted to drugs. You’ll come away, like I did, with a more patient and understanding view of humanity. You’ll start to forgive people in your life who might have wronged you, or at least start to understand them. It will even make you start to accept your own problems and shortcomings.

The bottom line of Infinite Jest is “we’re all fucked up and that’s ok.”

If you’re looking for answers about how to live your life, you won’t find them in this novel. But there is a real honest discussion here about what it’s like to be a human being. That’s something that thousands have writers have tried to express, but reading Infinite Jest was the first time I’d really ever heard it.

The best thing Infinite Jest gave me was inspiration. In fact, I believe that the best thing any artist can be given is inspiration. As I was finishing up with the book, I began an ongoing project that sought to bring some kind of visual life to the novel. I started with James O. Incandenza’s movie posters and quickly moved on to illustrating other artifacts from the world of Infinite Jest. I did this initially as a way to have conversations with other Wallace fans and as a way of prolonging my relationship with the book. Nearly five years later, I’m still working on that project.


Chris Ayers is a graphic designer who runs the Infinite Jest fan art site Poor Yorick Entertainment. See more of his work at chrisayerscreative.com

Jeff Alford: On 20 of My 31 Years, the Readers We Were, and Those We Strive to Be

At only a year or so into my thirties, it’s a strange task to consider the idea of “the 20th anniversary” and situate it into my current life. “Tenths” are already cropping up and I’m okay with that: ten years since graduating college, ten years since moving to New York City with my girlfriend (now wife) in an effort to work in publishing. Ten years ago I thought I’d become a novelist, and now I’m something different. My early thirties may just be my twenties, fine-tuned and finessed. If you asked if I saw this all coming when I was twenty – a job, a wife, an apartment and a dog – I’d like to think I’d say yes.

But twenty years: that’s a span that allots for new courses and not just course-correction. Twenty years ago brings me back to 1996, to my first CD player and “Diablo” on the computer, to Macarena school dances, which created the illusion of boys dancing with girls long before anyone would actually find the nerve. Sixth grade: we were too young for Braveheart but too old for Babe, adrift somewhere between, like Tom Hanks in Apollo 13. We could have been anything: warriors, farmers, astronauts.

I was always a passionate reader and I began acquiring books on my own a few years later, around 1998. I learned about first editions and started buying hardcovers from Raven Used Books in downtown Northampton, MA with my yardwork money. I got into Hunter S. Thompson (experimenting more in those years with my books than with much anything else) and his famous “wave” speech struck a particularly wayward teenage nerve within me: “no music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world.”

Would I ever be able to feel that sense? Thompson had the hippie zeitgeist, I had the mid-to-late nineties, Gin Blossoms and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. There seemed precious little for me to identify with, so I bought books and projected onto them what I thought could be a wave of cultural momentum. Perhaps they, too, would crest into something special. I strove to be in tune with my literary culture, and if not keep up with every book, I wanted to be able to look back and know that I was there, in that corner of time.

I realize now that each purchase I made then, and each purchase I still make as a collector, is an effort to mythologize my present as a reader and prophesize my future. We may never make it to all the books we buy, but each book kind of answers that eternal question of who we want to be when we grow up. I can point to a book in my library and say, I thought I was this once, and I’d like to be that person again, someday, eventually.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Infinite Jest has been on my bookshelves since about 2000 when I heard it was a serious read and I thought it’d look impressive in my teenage library. I could make you an Allmusic.com-style network of “if you like this, check out this” referrals, going from Dave Eggers to Thomas Pynchon (having found The Crying of Lot 49 by way of Radiohead’s mailorder shop, “W.A.S.T.E.”), and although all signs pointed to me enjoying the heck out of the thing, I’ve not once cracked Infinite Jest.

Why not? I identified with Infinite Jest, I strove to be its reader. Sixteen-ish years have passed but somehow it’s eluded me, and likely still would have had I not been invited to participate in Infinite Winter. For the most of us, it’s likely due to the page count, but for me I feel it’s something a little more complicated. With Infinite Jest completed, I’ll need a new beacon to send, unread, twenty years into the future, a book to welcome me into my inconceivable fifties.

I’m looking at my bookshelf now and, with a sort of bittersweetness, suspect that it’s already in my library. Which of these will I subconsciously choose not to read, and which book, like Infinite Jest, will wait for me?


Jeff Alford is a critic and book collector from Brooklyn, New York. He is a contributor to Run Spot Run, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and The New Orleans Review and is also the writer of the rare books and small press blog, www.theoxenofthesun.com. Find him on Twitter @theoxenofthesun.

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 naptimewriting.com and sometimes tweets as @Naptimewriting.

Matt Bucher: So You Want to Read Infinite Jest

If you’ve never read it, starting Infinite Jest can be a little intimidating. The good news is that it is not a thousand-page paragraph or even a thousand-page story. It’s built of dozens of chunks of stories. There are 28 un-numbered chapter breaks (signified by a little circle), similar to 28 days in a lunar cycle, but within those chapters are 189 total scenes plus endnotes.

Many readers are surprised to find that the text itself is not opaque or laden with stream-of-consciousness meanderings or literary allusions, but is mostly comprised of these highly accessible little chunks. There are some big words here and there, but they enhance the story rather than detract from it. There are a lot of characters, but only a handful of main characters. So, for any of the literary mountains one can attempt to climb (Mount Finnegans Wake, Mount Gravity’s Rainbow, Proust Peak), Infinite Jest requires relatively little pre-existing knowledge or assistance along the way.

Perhaps the greatest value a group read like Infinite Winter offers is the shared sense of working through a long project, combined with the ability to ask questions if you get confused.

There is no wrong way to read a novel. Read every word and give it your best effort. But after you have read the book, or at least a large portion of it, the desire to talk about it can be very strong. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about it or share your ideas.

Back in 2009, for the Infinite Summer project, I contributed to a short list of tips for reading Infinite Jest. I am revising and simplifying that list here in 2016:

  1. Read the endnotes: If you’re in the middle of a long stretch of text and you see that little number dangling there above the text, get used to pausing and flipping back to the endnotes.
  2. Use bookmarks: Use one for the main text and one for the endnotes. Get creative and make your own.
  3. Give it time: When you pick up a novel, say 300 pages long, consider giving it at least 30 pages or so before giving up on it. With Infinite Jest, at 1079 pages long, give it at least 107 pages before ditching it.
  4. Annotate the book or take notes: Underline words you want to look up later (or, if you are reading the e-book, highlight words not in the Kindle or iOS dictionary), star your favorite sentences, make lists of characters, etc.
  5. Use a reader’s guide: If you’re the type of reader who enjoys a critical companion for the long haul, there are two companion guides that I would recommend. One is Greg Carlisle’s Elegant Complexity: A Study of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. [Full disclosure: I am the editor & publisher of the Carlisle book.] Elegant Complexity is similar to The Bloomsday Book in that it provides a summary and exegesis on every section of the novel. Also included are chronologies, family trees, thematic discussions, and a map of the tennis academy. Stephen Burn’s revised David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: A Reader’s Guide provides a good overview of the novel and includes a chronology, as well as sections on the novel’s critical reception and key plot points.
  6. Consider the audiobook. The audiobook for Infinite Jest was released in 2012. Initially the audiobook did not include the endnotes (except as a text file attachment). Luckily that has been remedied and the endnotes were released as a separate audio file (similar to using two bookmarks, I’ve had to use two audio players to bounce back and forth). I have found the audiobook particularly appealing for sections of the novel that include some Quebecois words or accents. Should you choose to listen to the whole thing, it will take 67 hours of your time.
  7. Use online resources: There are numerous webpages out there that you might find useful. Here are a few:

In a way, you already know how this story ends. David Foster Wallace took his own life in 2008. The best way to remember him is to read this book.


Matt Bucher is the admin of the David Foster Wallace listserv, wallace-l, and the cohost of The Great Concavity, a podcast about Wallace. He lives in Austin, Texas. You can find him on Twitter @mattbucher.

Get Ready!

Infinite Jest

Set aside some time to be indoors this winter. 2016 marks the 20th anniversary (!!) of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and we’re going to be doing some reading. You know, Infinite Jest? That gargantuan novel you’ve talked about reading since the late 1990s, but still haven’t heaved off of your shelf. Or maybe you have made forays into the book, but you got held up at the Eschaton court? Continue reading Get Ready!

Read Infinite Jest with a few hundred of your closest friends: 75 pages per week, January 31 – May 2, 2016