Have you ever felt like you were late to a party you didn’t know was happening? That’s how I felt the first time I heard about David Foster Wallace.
I was a few months from starting my second year as a writing and literature professor and planning to teach an Introduction to Literature course for the first time.
Most of the class is poetry, drama, and short fiction, but I wanted to include a novel. I felt a lot of pressure in choosing this novel. How do you decide what single work will be the only book many students read for a while?
I wanted it to hook them. I felt pressure to choose a classic. At the time, I hadn’t read a lot of classics, but I thought I could prepare to teach anything. I just wanted to do right by my students.
So naturally I did what every self-respecting, educated person does before teaching a new class: I polled my Facebook friends.
The feedback was great. Friends recommended everything from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. And just like most of your Facebook friends, I listened to none of it.
But I’ll never forget one friend said, “Infinite Jest, they’ll never forgive you.”
And that was that. I had never heard of David Foster Wallace.
I ordered the book on the spot.
Sure, my friend was kidding, or at least I think he was kidding, but much like you probably were, I was intrigued by the thousand-page potential of this novel, and more pointedly, the idea that my students might never forgive me for assigning it.
I can’t tell you how many times I have opened this book and stared at the first page.
I wasn’t ready. When you’re young, the grand or the infinite seems so daunting.
Instead, I started to learn more about David Foster Wallace. I’d read articles and watch interviews. I loved the idea of international stardom as an author. Only a handful of authors ever achieve this.
I listened to his commencement speech, “This is Water,” at Kenyon College, and you’ll be pleased to know, my students are assigned this in conjunction with Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.”
I’ve read and shared many of Wallace’s quotes, enough to know this would sicken the late author.
Like many of you, I’m intoxicated with the idea of David Foster Wallace. I’m even simulating understanding him. I’ve even bought a copy of Infinite Jest for a handful of my friends, hoping we could read it together.
But when you’re not ready, you’re not ready. There’s no use faking it.
And I wasn’t ready.
I’m not really ready now, but there’s nothing like committing socially to do what you lack the gumption to do on your own. Maybe this time it’ll take. Sometimes I wonder what might have happened if I read the novel years ago and assigned it to that class. My students probably would have despised me.
Maybe, but if I don’t read this novel, I will never forgive myself.