Embarking on Infinite Jest

Amazon Kindle has David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest for $4.99 right now. I was going to buy it a few months ago, but I was already reading three books I had just purchased and I couldn’t justify spending another $9.99 on a book I wouldn’t read for a month. But I bought it yesterday. And I had ten minutes between work and teaching a lesson to read Dave Eggers’s introduction.

If you don’t know anything about Infinite Jest, I’ll fill you in. It’s a 1,079 page satirical (postmodern, tragicomedy, sci-fi, etc) novel that takes place in a future version of North America where corporations purchase rights to each calendar year (Year of Glad, Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, etc). The novel touches on depression, popular culture, advertising, family, addiction, and just about everything else, including tennis.

It’s basically a beast. And I’ve been hesitant to start reading it because it’s the size of the bible (but way more entertaining), and because I’ve heard that while DFW’s fiction is extremely rewarding, it is difficult to read.

Anyway, I purchased it on a whim and read the introductory essay by Dave Eggers and got really excited when I read this:

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. If we are drawn to Infinite Jest, we’re also drawn to Magnetic Fields’ 69 Songs, for which Stephin Merritt wrote that many songs, all of them about love, in about two years. And we’re drawn to the ten thousand paintings of folk artist Howard Finster. Or the work of Sufjan Stevens, who is on a mission to create an album about each state in the union. He’s currently on State No. 2, but if he reaches his goal, it will approach what Wallace did with the book in your hands. The point is that if we are interested in human possibility, and we are able to cheer each other on to leaps in science and athletics and art and thought, we must admire the work that our peers have managed to create. We have an obligation, to ourselves, chiefly, to see what a brain, and particularly a brain like our own – that is, using the same effluvium we, too, swim through – is capable of.

As soon as I read that paragraph, I wanted to call and cancel my student’s lesson, stay in that park and read. But I didn’t. Three hours later, I’m finally home and I’m able to make myself a cup of tea, grab a blanket, and sit on my couch with my Kindle and read.

If you’re interested in learning more about David Foster Wallace, check out this BBC interview.

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