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.

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