You’ll Need Some Help Reading Infinite Jest
I get the sense that many of you probably haven’t read Infinite Jest. It’s true, the book does look daunting and downright intimidating to read.
But the amazing thing about Infinite Jest is that there’s an entire world of resources out there to help you read this book. How many novels have companion readers and reference guides and wikis? This one does.
It’s unwise to attack Infinite Jest like it’s any other book. You need a plan. Jason Kottke at kottke.org (seriously, like one of the oldest blogs ever) created this list of tips on how to read Infinite Jest, which I’ll definitely be following. Thanks to Jason for permission to repost these tips:
2. Read the footnotes. 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. Remember, read the footnotes. You’re going to want to but don’t skip the footnotes. They are important. Yes, even the filmography one.
4. The rip in half technique. 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. The three bookmark method. 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. Grab a dictionary. 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. Grab a reference guide. 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. Don’t think about DFW’s death. Finally, you may have heard or read that Wallace committed suicide in 2008. 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.
Back to Robert: I also found this similar list over at Infinite Summer.
Bottom line: Infinite Jest is more than just a read, it’s a commitment. I’m not usually the let’s-join-hands-and-sing-along-while-we-read-the-same-book type of guy, but I’d love for some of you to read through this one with me. I need the help!
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