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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 (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:

1. Get the book. If you haven’t already, buy the book, get it from your local library, or download to your Kindle.

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, 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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30 Comments Post a comment
  1. NotMsParker #

    I´m afraid DFW´s is one of those books I will be able to read when I´m retired. And even then I am most likely to pop my clogs before I am done with the footnotes. So good luck to you! Hold on in there. Remember, you are doing this for many!

    April 7, 2011
    • I’ll do my best. Who knows…maybe you’ll get inspired to read it!

      April 7, 2011
  2. It sounds like a college class! At the risk of sounding lame and undignified, I will gladly read the Cliff Notes … or just wait for your blog posts about this one.

    April 7, 2011
  3. I’ve always been a sucker for impossible quests, and I’m retired, so I’ll give it a shot along with you. You sound like I felt when I read Gravity’s Rainbow way back when it first came out.

    And back to the “how seldom they do” aphorism – I’ve looked around, and so far have only been able to find it referenced as an Irish proverb. I stole it for my e-mail signature back in the late nineties, and Steinbeck didn’t cite its source, so I can’t fault DFW for doing the same.

    April 7, 2011
    • I’ll probably need your guidance when I eventually get to Gravity’s Rainbow. It’s on the list, and I’ve heard it’s pretty daunting as well.

      April 7, 2011
  4. Patti #

    I’m in – I was going to get it from the library, but it may take too long to read, even with renewals. I’ve reserved it at the bookstore and will pick it up today – I’ll use my newly-awarded Borders Bucks on it!

    April 7, 2011
    • Very cool. Welcome to the fun!

      April 7, 2011
  5. Amanda #

    I read this about 6 years ago, but couldn’t tell you much about it. It was one of those weird books where I had no clue what was happening half the time yet I enjoyed the process. There were some laugh-out-loud moments and some “WTF” out-loud moments. I think it’s definitely time to try it again with some of these resources to help me along, but I need to wait until summer. School and work are slightly overwhelming these days!

    April 7, 2011
  6. OK, I will see if I can get it over the weekend.

    April 7, 2011
  7. I submitted a request at the library. Don’t know if it’ll get to me on time though– there are two versions and both have holds ahead of mine. 7 copies total and 8 requests including mine. I’m intrigued.

    April 7, 2011
  8. bba #

    i am in too. should be a good time.

    April 8, 2011
  9. Patti #

    Two bookmarks in place, ready to go. I think.

    April 8, 2011
  10. Okay, I’m in. (Just need to get one of the reference guides.) I guess it’s time to read it- I have a feeling the friend I borrowed it from is starting to wonder if I’ll ever give it back.

    April 8, 2011
    • Awesome! It’s not judging you, I promise. I’m going without the reference guides, but I am going to keep a dictionary handy.

      April 8, 2011
  11. Patti #

    I’m going to at least begin without the reference guides, but I am glad I just went to the Infinite Summer site and read about the Hamlet connection.

    April 8, 2011
    • Yeah, the Infinite Summer site is great. This book has a ton of websites and articles devoted to it…I would say even more than some of the classics like Catcher and 1984. A lot of stuff to help out.

      April 8, 2011
  12. I finished this book last summer. The different bookmarks are helpful, as well as the dictionary. The astounding thing that Wallace accomplished is creating an 1100 page book that, once finished, you immediately want to read again. (You’ll see what I mean). While there were many grotesque parts, mainly toward the end, that I could do without description of, I loved this book and his attention to detail and to the way people speak, the way Hal’s mother is like, in charge of the grammar of the country. I love that the dialogue is so intellectual. I also couldn’t care less about sports, but loved learning about Hal’s tennis and the older brother’s football. Wallace was just that amazing.

    April 8, 2011
    • The gross parts couldn’t be much worse than Deliverance, could they? I guess I’ll find out.

      April 9, 2011
      • I don’t know – I haven’t read Deliverance. I’ve read 3 or 4 by Chuck Palahniuk and had to stop because of all the random grotesque occurrences. In Infinite Jest, it’s definitely fitting with the story, but still just torturous to read through.
        Also, I didn’t know about page 223 when I was reading, so I made notes up to that point trying to figure out the order of the years by using the age of Hal mentioned in each chapter. It was a nice surprise.

        April 10, 2011
  13. You inspired my curiosity (though I must be the only person in the world who didn’t know who David Foster Wallace was) and I ordered Infinite Jest.

    Also, I ordered “Consider the Lobster,” a collection of his essays. It’s in the same style. I’m in the middle of reading it now – prep work for the longer IJ. So far, intense and wonderful!

    Thanks for the inspiration!


    April 21, 2011
  14. Just the other night, I was complaining to my boyfriend about how I at some point will run out of ‘difficult books’ to read – I’ve read War and Peace and other of the great Russian novels, I’m working on Marcel Proust and I plan on reading Joyce (Ulysses & Finnegan’s Wake) soon(ish). So I’m glad you reminded me that Infinite Jest is another of these hardcore novels that demands something of you as a reader.

    February 5, 2012
  15. Kathy Robins #

    Just finished the crazyamazing thing and wish I had found you first. I did NOT tear the book in half. Used the 2 bookmark method (wish I had known about page 223 cuz I kept wishing I could remember where that chronology was but couldn’t spare the time to search it out – repeatedly)
    Kept up with the footnotes the whole way through and ended up glad of them and not annoyed at all. Around 100 pages in, lost and confused I asked a friend ack help and he said oh you need a DFW ‘starter book’, recommending Consider the Lobster which I ripped through immediately (falling in love – with DFW – of course). Discovered 3/4 of the way through CtheL that he demapped himself in 2008 and was bereft for a time. Oh.
    OH.It’s not a book it’s a universe.
    Also went out yesterday, because of my fear of finding myself DFW-less and knowing I was 50 pages away from Infinte Jestlessness and bought every DFW book my bookstore had. Spending the grocery $ to do it.
    So worth it.
    And oh I think it took me right around 5 months to read IJ. That’s prolly only about a month of actual reading.
    Yes worth it and then some.

    March 9, 2012
    • Shem the Penman #


      I’m a big fan of Infinite Jest, and for what it’s worth I used two bookmarks too. I also recommend DFW’s first novel Broom of the System, which has a lot of the same exuberant prose and flights of fancy I appreciated in the more substantial Jest.

      But my favorite DFW work is Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, a collection of brilliant short pieces that lay bare the male psyche in all its self-protective, immature, gadget-obsessed pathology. The story The Depressed Person is one of the finest examples of Wallace’s talent: an examination of the downward spiral that Wallace obviously knew too well, as well as the narcissism that makes the person’s fall faster and longer. And it’s also very funny.


      March 9, 2012
      • Shem the Sham #

        SHEM! I’m trying to find you! My girlfriend saw your review of Finnegans Wake on goodreads, and thought it was me!
        (I am a noise musician under the moniker of Shem the Sham.)

        April 10, 2014
        • Jeff on the Isle of…? Please write me a poem,
          Sincerely, Calamity Flan, Professor of Retro-Degenerative Semiomancy.

          May 5, 2014
    • Very cool, Kathy. It’s a book that’s worth the read, even though it all doesn’t make sense the first time around. Glad you found the blog!

      In case you’re interested, here’s my post recapping all of my posts about Infinite Jest. I had quite a few.

      March 9, 2012
  16. Kathy #

    And YES, I did – and do – immediately want to read it again.

    March 10, 2012
  17. I love it when folks get together and share opinions. Great blog,
    stick with it!

    July 2, 2014

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Looking Back on Infinite Jest | 101 Books
  2. Read: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace | ReadWriteLib's 2013 Reads!

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