If you’ve never read it, starting Infinite Jest can be a little intimidating. The good news is that it is not a thousand-page paragraph or even a thousand-page story. It’s built of dozens of chunks of stories. There are 28 un-numbered chapter breaks (signified by a little circle), similar to 28 days in a lunar cycle, but within those chapters are 189 total scenes plus endnotes.
Many readers are surprised to find that the text itself is not opaque or laden with stream-of-consciousness meanderings or literary allusions, but is mostly comprised of these highly accessible little chunks. There are some big words here and there, but they enhance the story rather than detract from it. There are a lot of characters, but only a handful of main characters. So, for any of the literary mountains one can attempt to climb (Mount Finnegans Wake, Mount Gravity’s Rainbow, Proust Peak), Infinite Jest requires relatively little pre-existing knowledge or assistance along the way.
Perhaps the greatest value a group read like Infinite Winter offers is the shared sense of working through a long project, combined with the ability to ask questions if you get confused.
There is no wrong way to read a novel. Read every word and give it your best effort. But after you have read the book, or at least a large portion of it, the desire to talk about it can be very strong. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about it or share your ideas.
Back in 2009, for the Infinite Summer project, I contributed to a short list of tips for reading Infinite Jest. I am revising and simplifying that list here in 2016:
- Read the endnotes: If you’re in the middle of a long stretch of text and you see that little number dangling there above the text, get used to pausing and flipping back to the endnotes.
- Use bookmarks: Use one for the main text and one for the endnotes. Get creative and make your own.
- Give it time: When you pick up a novel, say 300 pages long, consider giving it at least 30 pages or so before giving up on it. With Infinite Jest, at 1079 pages long, give it at least 107 pages before ditching it.
- Annotate the book or take notes: Underline words you want to look up later (or, if you are reading the e-book, highlight words not in the Kindle or iOS dictionary), star your favorite sentences, make lists of characters, etc.
- Use a reader’s guide: If you’re the type of reader who enjoys a critical companion for the long haul, there are two companion guides that I would recommend. One is Greg Carlisle’s Elegant Complexity: A Study of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. [Full disclosure: I am the editor & publisher of the Carlisle book.] Elegant Complexity is similar to The Bloomsday Book in that it provides a summary and exegesis on every section of the novel. Also included are chronologies, family trees, thematic discussions, and a map of the tennis academy. Stephen Burn’s revised David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: A Reader’s Guide provides a good overview of the novel and includes a chronology, as well as sections on the novel’s critical reception and key plot points.
- Consider the audiobook. The audiobook for Infinite Jest was released in 2012. Initially the audiobook did not include the endnotes (except as a text file attachment). Luckily that has been remedied and the endnotes were released as a separate audio file (similar to using two bookmarks, I’ve had to use two audio players to bounce back and forth). I have found the audiobook particularly appealing for sections of the novel that include some Quebecois words or accents. Should you choose to listen to the whole thing, it will take 67 hours of your time.
- Use online resources: There are numerous webpages out there that you might find useful. Here are a few:
- The Infinite Jest index
- The Infinite Jest Utilities Page, which includes chapter thumbnails and an endnote finder
- The IJ page at The Howling Fantods
- Posts on kottke.org with the infinitejest tag
- The Infinite Jest wiki
In a way, you already know how this story ends. David Foster Wallace took his own life in 2008. The best way to remember him is to read this book.
Matt Bucher is the admin of the David Foster Wallace listserv, wallace-l, and the cohost of The Great Concavity, a podcast about Wallace. He lives in Austin, Texas. You can find him on Twitter @mattbucher.