The Generous Relenting

To avoid spoilers, the guides will comment on each week’s reading in the week that follows. We’ll use this first week to introduce ourselves and hope you’ll do the same in the comments.

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When you pick up Infinite Jest you’re truly holding a puzzle. One of those highly complex jigsaw puzzles with thousands of tiny pieces. Maybe the best analogue is that infamous 17×6 ft, 32,000 piece one. Opening to Jest’s first page is akin to lifting the lid off the box, revealing an absolute chaos of displaced shapes and diasporic colors. The box doesn’t even have the image of what the completed puzzle looks like, so you’re up the creek in terms of visual cues for assembly.

And the method for constructing this puzzle will not be traditional. Rather than searching for corners, edges, and color themes, organizing them in various sensical ways, a highly-intelligent, possibly malevolent stranger (with a weirdly specific knowledge of pharmaceutical nomenclature) will hand you random pieces, one at a time, that seem to bear no relation to one another. These will stack up and your sense of despair will swell as you continually fail to see a pattern or any semblance of relational order between them. Prepare to be confused for a while.

This is likely why many people abandon the book within the first couple hundred pages. It has a high barrier to entry, and is constructed in such a way as to weed out uncommitted readers. It’s like one of those awful college or university English profs who presents a horrifying course workload on the first day of class, but then relents generously as the course progresses, laughing at how they intentionally scared Science students away on the first day. You will eventually come to be in on the joke, able to laugh at it with the rest of the class.

So as this book progresses, a time does come, perhaps a little later than you’d like, where this generous relenting begins. There is an illuminating breakthrough moment. And you’ll know it when you see it. Don’t go looking for it though; it will find you. Once you happen upon it, you’ll probably start flipping back to fit all the pieces together, derailing your reading progress for a bit. That’s okay. You should totally do it. I did.

Once you’re finally done the puzzle and can see the whole picture in its fully assembled glory, there will probably still be areas you’re unsure about, that resemble strange, surrealist art. This is postmodern fiction. But now you know the whole picture, and are fully equipped to start the whole thing over again, appreciating the shape and color of each seemingly random piece from the outset.

I first finished the puzzle of Infinite Jest in 2008, and haven’t shaken its effects/affects since. In a strange way, it’s become part of my identity, of how I think about and experience humanity and the world, in all of its paradoxical abjection and glory. I sometimes even think that I might not be able to be fully understood by another person unless they’ve also read this book. I know that sounds pretentious and exclusive, hyperbolic even (and maybe it is), but I’d be willing to bet that other readers of Jest might be able to Identify.

There’s just a strange and magical camaraderie between its readers that no other novel achieves, in my experience. The shared knowledge of Hal and the Incandenzas, Don Gately and the P.G.O.A.T., of Eschaton, NoCoat Inc. LinguaScrapers, Blood Sister: One Tough Nun, the Statue of Liberty in an adult diaper, and the samizdat feels like the doctrine of something approximating an ancient and clandestine gnostic sect.

There’s a lot about loneliness in this book, and a lot about community as well. We’ll typically read the book alone, atomized. Reading is essentially a lonely enterprise in one sense. But Infinite Winter emphasizes that Infinite Jest is so much about coming together as well, and provides a practical site for that premise. In this way, the project seems to thematically embody Jest’s major concerns, and I think this will be a nourishing thing.

Looking Again and Looking Often

To avoid spoilers, the guides will comment on each week’s reading in the week that follows. We’ll use this first week to introduce ourselves and hope you’ll do the same in the comments.

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Have you ever shit your pants? There are worse things. Really. Like affirming just how well you know someone because you are driving the car directly behind their hearse, on the way to their freshly open plot in the graveyard.

There are worse things. Really. Sure, the thought of shitting your pants is pretty high-volume terrible, but figuring out how to get out of those pants is really when resilience comes into play.

Curious as to why and how these descriptions may help you get hooked on Infinite Jest? The goal here is to confirm that you are on your way to a visceral, multi-sensory experience. Keep this in mind if you are at all disheartened by your first attempts at reading Infinite Jest. Pay attention to those details that finally get to you and pull you in. I have a prediction that those details will reveal a lot about who you are and what makes you get up in the morning, and I am really, really hoping that you will let us in on what you find.

I know we have a lot of artists participating in Infinite Winter, so I also know the finding is likely to be as visually descriptive as Wallace’s depictions in Infinite Jest. As you read, soak these descriptions up, in particular, Wallace’s descriptions of rooms and windows. Then bring these descriptions with you when you are dealing with your routine tasks. If you try this out, I predict that the walls you work in and the floors you walk on are going to gain intrigue.

And don’t stop there. Even the pages and screens that you read text on—in Infinite Jest, your cable viewing guide, and convenience store receipts have clues that can help you make sense of the story you are reading and the one you are living. Wallace not only has a way with words, he even has a way with the way the words are arranged on a page. Which words would Wallace break between typed lines to make you really think, while reading Infinite Jest? Words like “Un-
swallowabilty.”

Ah, yes. Now, think back to my first question:

Have you ever shit your pants?

Wallace is going to bring you through some intense human experiences, but as he does—he will also break words and paragraphs, and cause you to reread specific sentences. To make you think. In fact, word arrangements contribute to the calming ritualistic quality of reading Infinite Jest. Wallace takes a word like Un-
swallowability and all the feeling surrounding it and divides it: Un-
swallowability. Literally, between lines just like that. The actual composition of the words on the page helps me get into and grab onto the experience of hearing, seeing, and tasting Infinite Jest.

So, wherever you are, in your story, and in Infinite Jest—Keep going until you find something you can sink your teeth and hands and heart and feet into.

My Infinite Jest Origin Story

To avoid spoilers, the guides will comment on each week’s reading in the week that follows. We’ll use this first week to introduce ourselves and hope you’ll do the same in the comments.

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Every first impression you have of this book may well be wrong. I say this only because mine were.

My Infinite Jest origin story is, in a word, unliterary. It isn’t glamorous or exciting, it doesn’t have any narratives of salvation, redemption or conversion. It is, frankly, a little embarrassing. So I suppose at least it’s sorta confessional.

Before I was a massive book geek – maybe five, six years ago – I was a massive classical music geek. I got into music theory in a pretty big way, I wrote a lot, wore out ROM-drives absorbing everything I could and gravitated to those dark corners where arcana and its geeky enthusiasts gathered. One of these (this is the slightly embarrassing bit) was the /mu/ board of the ill-reputed and infamously “anonymous” imageboard-cum-forum 4chan.

I’m sure I got some good album and artist recommendations from /mu/ but the thing that sticks in my mind the most is In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. All you needed to do, on /mu/, if you wanted to create a thread contentious enough to generate dozens of replies and hover on the board’s first page was stick up a picture of Neutral Milk Hotel’s album’s cover and wait for the praise and derision to come rolling in.

While I wasn’t a terribly bookish type then, I still popped over to the site’s /lit/ board often enough to see the same thing happening semi-regularly there too. In this case it wasn’t a woman with a tambourine (?) for a face causing all the fuss but a blue rectangle, a single cloud and a yellow-green title that didn’t quite fit.

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This was my introduction to Infinite Jest.

It would be a few more years before I actually picked up the book, when I was searching for something really big to read, and I think the old /lit/ guerrilla-threads bubbled back up to the surface. I’m all a bit vague on the whole thing, now.

Here are some of my first impressions of Infinite Jest that turned out to be wrong. That the book (set in a tennis academy and a halfway house) would be boring and (worse) Franzenesque. That the author’s best qualification to write it was he used to play tennis himself. That the prose and themes and plot would be pitched at a five-year-old’s level (“NATIONAL BESTSELLER”, the cover proclaimed).

That I wouldn’t like it.

That in about a week I’d be able to put it behind me forever.

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Infinite Jest, circle – watercolour and pen

I started Infinite Jest on a plane but I finished it after one stolen-night’s reading slumped gracelessly, husklike and scratchy-eyed, across a Chesterfield armchair at 5AM. Crushed, I crawled back to bed but I don’t think I really slept for a week afterwards.

Infinite Jest overwhelms. My head and heart were full of Hal, Don, Joelle, Orin, Marathe, Mario, The Moms, C.T., Randy Lenz, John Wayne, (the man) Himself and hundreds of other characters. The [dozens of plot points redacted (reason: spoilers)]. The thing is though – and this is the thing I just can’t explain – is that if this stuff’s going to fit in that head and heart of yours, you’re gunna have to drain them of your self in the process.

And so you find yourself (your self) a husk, post-Jest.

Infinite Jest is a powerful magnet held against the mind’s tape.

So I decided to re-read it once a year. That wasn’t enough.

I wrote a speculative quasi-theoretical essay on it and I flew: Adelaide to Sydney – two hours, Sydney to DFW – 15.5 hours (! – the world’s longest commercial flight), waited 14 hours in Dallas while my flight to Bloomington, Ill.) was delayed and then cancelled due to various tornado issues (that it was also the Labor Day weekend’s Monday meant I was by no means alone), flew another hour or so to Champaign instead and then split a cab (another 1.5 hours, post-midnight) to Bloomington: all to talk about Infinite Jest on the opposite side of the globe. That still wasn’t enough.

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Now I’m drawing Infinite Jest, a page at a time, over three years. I’ll talk more about the project and why I’m doing it in the following weeks. Maybe it’s now Too Much, but will Too Much every really Be Enough?

So we come to Infinite Winter to chase more: another iteration of the recursive loop Infinite Jest sets for us.

Infinite Winter will be iteration one for many of you. Cherish this: you only get one Infinite Jest origin story.

David Foster Wallace Giveth, and I Taketh Away

To avoid spoilers, the guides will comment on each week’s reading in the week that follows. We’ll use this first week to introduce ourselves and hope you’ll do the same in the comments.

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It goes like this.

I sit cross-legged on the floor of my one-bedroom apartment, nested in the corner where the poetry bookshelves meet the nonfiction bookshelves in a V. There, I place Infinite Jest on my scanner with repeated thunks, scanning its pages in high resolution to an SD card; after scanning a group 20 pages or so, I transfer it to my computer, where the real work begins.

In Photoshop, I open one of the scanned images and fix its imperfections — I adjust page rotation and correct color, and exorcise the ghosts of my hands accidentally captured during the scan. I methodically begin to erase Wallace’s words, whiting out 80-90 percent of the page, until only a few, select words — poems — remain.

Here’s an animated GIF that illustrates the process:

Animated GIF of page 3 of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest turning into an erasure poem.

I’ve been repeating this process as part of my project, called Erasing Infinite, since late 2013 and  posting the resulting poems online as I go. I know that some of you will see this as desecration of a holy text; just know I pursue this project in homage.

I originally read Infinite Jest during Infinite Summer in 2009, and it was one of those rare instances of reading the right book at the right time in your life— something I’d only experienced previously with Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Wallace once said, “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” and I felt, reading Infinite Jest, that I had finally found an author who really got it. Like so many who first find solace in Wallace’s writing, I’d been feeling adrift and alone for years. To find words sitting in a book that articulated what I’d struggled to express for so long was powerful.

And also heartbreaking. What did it mean that Wallace, the one author who’d been able to give words to these feelings of isolation that so often go unspoken by so many, had killed himself? Should we all do the same?

Jenni B Baker Erasing InfiniteI carried this quandary — this grief, really — around for a few years before I alighted on the idea for Erasing Infinite. I decided that it was only by working through Infinite Jest, page by page, that I could properly pay homage to Wallace. In creating something new from his words, I could create a conduit for him to live on, and new opportunities for connection — between myself and others, and between others and Wallace.

Receiving the invitation from Mark to be an Infinite Winter guide is a great example of the kind of opportunity I’m talking about. It’s satisfying to feel connected to the larger David Foster Wallace community — both the repeat readers whose names I’m used to seeing pop up in my inbox and Twitter feed — and those of you who are new. I can’t wait to see what personal connection points you find in Infinite Jest.

What can you expect from me? I’m not the guide who’s read every book by Wallace or every scholarly article; I have not obsessively tracked down every reference or pursued every plot point to its possible end(s). What I can offer as a guide is a love of language and a lot of heart. I expect my posts will look at how Wallace says things as much as they do what he’s actually saying. (Did I mention I’m a former English major?)  

And while Infinite Winter continues, so too does Erasing Infinite. I’ve just passed the 25 percent completion point — now if only I could work through poems at the same rate we’ll be reading.

 

“So yo then man what’s your story?”

To avoid spoilers, the guides will comment on each week’s reading in the week that follows. We’ll use this first week to introduce ourselves and hope you’ll do the same in the comments.

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My start as a book critic was more mercenary than literary. In 1999, I was brought on as the columns editor at a friend’s online music magazine. This was during the heyday of the online magazine – everybody had one, and if you didn’t then what exactly were you doing with your life?

It quickly became apparent that the music writers were the frequent recipients of all manner of schwag for their efforts – CDs, concert tickets, t-shirts – they were raking it in. And what did we get? Zip. Diddly. Bupkis. That is, until a fellow writer suggested we start a book review section because, you know, free books! So we did, and before long publishers from Algonquin to Zondervan were dropping books on our doorsteps.

I’ve never been overly literary in my reading choices, tending naturally towards humor, magical realism, and cyberpunk. It took me eight years to get around to Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay, it wasn’t until 2012 that I read White Noise or Cloud Atlas, and 2014’s The Goldfinch was my first Donna Tartt book. I find what I need to read eventually; sometimes it just takes a little push in the right direction.

I’m sorry to say that it was David Foster Wallace’s death in 2008 and the media maelstrom that surrounded it that awakened me to the need to read Infinite Jest. What’s more, everything I’d heard about the book suggested that it might be an undertaking warranting some sort of fellowship – someone with whom I could share the experience, whose strength I could lean on in difficult times (eschaton, anyone?), and with whom I could hope to cross the 1,079-page finish line.

I tried coercing my friend Shawn into reading Infinite Jest with me, but we were both doing NaNoWriMo that fall, and it didn’t come off. Months passed while Shawn and I steadfastly continued not reading Infinite Jest together, until one day in June 2009 he emailed me a link to Infinite Summer, a massive online group reading of Infinite Jest. With the link, Shawn asked a simple question: “Are you in?” I don’t recall my exact response, but gmail might.

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Infinite Summer was transformative for me in the way that few reading experiences are. Three months submerged in Wallace’s labyrinthine narrative surrounded by a panoply of characters as real to me as the infinite community of online readers with whom I engaged in myriad micro-conversations – connecting dots, unraveling threads.

After Infinite Summer, I continued reading Wallace – his fiction and his essays. But though I found the same virtuosic writing, nothing compared to the experience of Infinite Jest, the mesmerizing depths at which Wallace held me rapt beneath the surface of his many-layered story and the camaraderie that arose in our communal reading.

I was patient. I waited six years. But on a snowy hike in December, a friend (another Shawn) mentioned to me that he had just started reading Infinite Jest. And I just knew it was time.

As I read I’m starting to hear my voice once again escape my lips, as passages too mind-blowing or just difficult to parse need to be spoken aloud. On the bus, I’m giggling to myself, attracting looks from fellow commuters as I scribble in the margins with my blue pen. I’m looking around for someone to share this stuff with.

And here you are.

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Nick Maniatis: Truths and Clichés

I first read Infinite Jest in 1996. I loved it.

I was 20 and studying for my undergraduate degree at the Australian National University in Canberra. Infinite Jest had such an impact on me that by March 1997 I had created a website celebrating David Foster Wallace, The Howling Fantods, and I reported on everything I could find about his writing.

Fast forward to 2009 and I’d read Infinite Jest four times and claimed (during 2009’s Infinite Summer) that I had stopped counting. But I hadn’t stopped counting. I was just kind of worried that I couldn’t shake this book. That it had too great a hold over me. That I had succumbed to some of the themes that Wallace, through Infinite Jest, was urging readers to… avoid.

I decided to stop re-reading. Cold turkey.

Last year, 2015, I picked Infinite Jest up again. My brother and a close friend were reading it and I wanted to be able to read along and discuss it if they wanted to. But along the way something else happened:

I’d forgotten how funny it was.
I’d forgotten how it relied on me to work – to attend – to unearth its rewards.
I’d forgotten that I grew up while reading it.
I’d forgotten how it changed me.
I’d forgotten how it helped me.

Without warning the Infinite Jest clichés flooded in as I found myself just as immersed as during previous reads:

“Infinite Jest changed the way I think about the world and other human beings.”
“I connect more easily with people and better understand how they think and feel.”
“I can just talk to someone else who has read Infinite Jest and we… connect.”
“I’ve made so many friends – across the globe – since reading this novel.”
“Infinite Jest feels just like the voice in MY head.”
“It was challenging but I just kept at it, every day, one day at a time, and I shared it with others, and I got through it. I got through it.”

No doubt many of you joining Infinite Winter this year will have already stumbled across some variations of these in the pieces already shared here on the blog. If you’re joining us so that you can read again with a crowd I’m sure that some of these clichés have floated through your minds, or at the very least you’ve heard someone else express one or more of them when discussing this novel.

I even suspect some of you out there are groaning because here they are being repeated again.

But please don’t resist them.

Because at their hearts clichés are also truths. And the clichés at the heart of Infinite Jest are beautiful.

And if you let them… they will change you.

Enjoy.

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Nick Maniatis is the owner of the David Foster Wallace web resource, The Howling Fantods, that has been dedicated to promoting the works of David Foster Wallace since 1997. He lives in Canberra, Australia, and teaches high school English. You can find him on twitter @nick_maniatis.

Johanna Schwartz: An Archaeologist of Infinite Jest

I met Infinite Jest at City Lights on a trip to San Francisco in 2007. It was purely an economic purchase; the 10th anniversary edition had a cover price $10 and seemed a bargain for so many pages. I was already buying a bigger suitcase to take home all of my thrift store finds, so the heft didn’t phase me at all.

I read it over a period of maybe three months, and when I finished, I immediately turned back to page one and started over again.

For my third and fourth readings, I kept a notebook, writing down words to look up, tracking subsidized time to try and place this world in my own. My notebook filled with exclamation points as the pieces aligned.

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For my fifth time in 2014, I wanted to share the experience with others, and, using the original Infinite Summer reading schedule, launched infinitesummeryyc – a local online reading club encouraging other Calgarians to join me. Going through the process of hosting a reading club that required weekly recaps from yrstruly solidified for me the greatest pleasure that comes from reading Infinite Jest – watching the balletic confluence of worlds unite.

Much is made of the themes of Infinite Jest; of family, identity, addiction, and the desperate need to feel understood, to have a place. All of these are the hook that kept me connected to the novel on the first read, even when I didn’t understand exactly what was transpiring.

More has been made of the narrative structure, the new use of language, the voices that DFW effortlessly captured. The pathos, the humor, the heart-stricken grief. The lark of the endnotes that send you careening back and forth. These are the reasons I read the book with the dumbest of grins on my face.

But what has made me an archaeologist of the book, why I am returning for the sixth time, is the depth of the connective tissues – the pointed collisions, the stunningly significant plot points seemingly dropped into the middle of paragraphs with no fan fare. When they are purposefully, boldly cinematic (see Gately, driving Pat’s car, kicking up the cup on the street that is the beginning of the end of the Antitoi Bros) they take my breath away. When the filmography of JOI is revealed to hold so much historical information I am thrilled to be rewarded by the close reading. It is this structural magnificence that I believe is often overlooked, if only because the reveal of how deep and delightful it is takes levels of re-reads (or one seriously intense first read, which would be beyond my ken).

I was able to visit the DFW archives at the University of Texas during SxSW in 2011. They had lined the room with tables and had laid out a small portion of the collection: student newspaper columns, self help books with layers and layers of color coded notes in the margins, letters back and forth from editors, and a handwritten first draft of Infinite Jest. Part of me expected to see a complex system that I always assumed DFW must have kept intact to keep tabs on this spiraling world. I imagined it like a detective’s “theory wall” in a movie – all red string, post it notes, maps with pins in it, and grainy black and white photos. Of course, nothing like that was there, just a HANDWRITTEN draft, where pen follows pen and each piece is laid with the sort of intent that comes from knowing exactly where you are going. I am sure Wallace’s process fell somewhere in the middle, and really, I’m not too eager to peek behind the curtain, because Infinite Jest is the most complete world and world view I have ever come across in a novel. I don’t need to know how he did it. I just am fulfilled because it is.

Don Gately forever.

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Johanna Schwartz (@janedoughnut) is the grown up version of her nerdy kid self. She helps cooler people make cool things happen by writing grants and organizing stuff. She tears up every time she watches the Decemberists’ “Calamity Song” video.

Clay Bonnyman Evans: David Foster Wallace, My Brother, and Me – Comrades in Copenhagen

Why have I joined this collective effort to read a book I hate? Basically, Copenhagen. Not the cosmopolitan Danish city, the chewing tobacco.

Years ago, I became an instant pariah at a party of Johnnys — graduates of St. John’s College in Santa Fe — when I let slip that I had never read James Joyce’s Ulysses to my short, intimidating friend, Julia.

“But I’ve always wanted to,” I mewled. “I’ve read Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist…”

“Ha! You’ve got Ulysses envy,” she barked as the mob pressed in, mocking at the foot of my literary Golgotha.

Never again. I vowed to read the novel as I would run a marathon or climb a mountain, one step at a time. I took Ulysses on the bus to and from my job covering the Colorado legislature, never reading more than 10 pages at a sitting, and soon stopped trying to read my concordance on the down-low. It worked. I read the final 140 pages in a heaving rush, consuming Molly Bloom’s monologue while fat raindrops soaked the pages.

I applied the technique to other, allegedly (or truly) difficult books, including Lowry’s Under the Volcano, The Brothers Karamazov, Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! and it worked every time. Some of those toughies are among my favorites (and some weren’t worth it).

Then along came this do-rag’d hipster wearing gold-rim glasses and sporting an impressive ability to trick self-important intellectuals into thinking Infinite Jest was something other than self-absorbed, lookit-me, Amherstian bamboozlement. The guy was smart, laughing all the way to the cushy lecturing job.

And on Wallace, my Tough Text Technique® wasn’t working. Fucker. I hated him and told people his stupid book was the worst kind of patronizing post-modern pabulum. I sold it. Then bought it again. Then failed. Sold. Bought. Failed. Repeat. Dammit.

Then DFW went and killed himself in 2008 and much to my irritation I learned we had a few problems in common, including a history of drug and alcohol issues, depression, and Copenhagen, the “tobacco” product (is it, really?) you stuff between your lower lip and gum. Wallace never could stop using Cope. Just like my best friend, also now dead, who happened to be my younger brother.

I couldn’t hate Wallace any more; we were bound by nicotine. Sometimes I imagined the three of us driving across US 50 in Nevada (“The Loneliest Highway in America”) in my brother’s 1974 Toyota “Landpuppy,” chewing until our mouths were raw and poisoned and talking, considering lobsters, endlessly talking…

But I still hated IJ.

Miraculously, and not without considerable struggle, I put that shit down forever in 2009. I’m still an addict — if you forcibly stuffed my lip, I’d be quivering at the Conoco tomorrow morning at 6 a.m., aching for my fix — but I don’t do nicotine and never will again.

And if I can pull that off, then surely I can finish IJ, with the help of Infinite Winter. But I’m warning you: the first person who starts talking about Proust gets a tube sock full of woodscrews across the forehead.

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Clay Bonnyman Evans is a freelance writer who loves critters, running, surfing and hiking. His checkered college career was interrupted by a six-year stint working as a cowboy around the West, after which he continued his descent on the social ladder working as a journalist for more than 20 years. He’s on Twitter @claybonnyman

Jessica Manuel: Let’s Party!

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.

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Jessica is a writing and literature professor who writes the blog, BookOblivion.com. You can find her on Twitter (and Instagram) @bookoblivion.

Joseph Sullivan: The Book Cover That Never Was

Let’s talk about the elephant in the design studio for a moment. For a book as celebrated as Infinite Jest, it took quite some time for its jackets and covers to catch up. Mr. Wallace apparently loathed the jacket for the hardcover edition, telling David Lipsky that it looked like the American Airlines safety booklet. “The cloud system,” he said, “is almost identical.”

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Original paperback designer Elizabeth Van Itallie and 10th anniversary designer Keith Hayes retained the cloud imagery and made some strong improvements along the way. With each new design, we see fewer clouds. The hardcover design that Wallace disliked is stuffed with them; by the time we get to Mr. Hayes’ design, there’s but one. The typography too becomes bolder and more meaningful; the torqued, off-the-canvas title text of the current in-print design suggests infinity much more successfully than past editions have. The Hayes design is the queen of the cloud covers.

Book design fans may know there’s a new design forthcoming from Little, Brown to mark the twentieth anniversary of Infinite Jest’s publication. The sky has cleared and we’re in new, amusing-ourselves-to-death territory:

IJ_twentieth

I haven’t been able to dig up anything on what Mr. Wallace thought about the Van Itallie and Hayes designs, and sadly, he’s got nothing to say about Mr. Walsh’s effort. But we do know Mr. Wallace did attempt to art-direct the design of Infinite Jest, and that he had at least two photo suggestions:

1. He wanted to use a specific photograph of Fritz Lang directing the cast of Metropolis. Nick Greene at Mental Floss wonders if it’s this one:

metropolis

2. Mr. Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch, said this in an interview with The Millions:

“For Infinite Jest he proposed using a photo of a giant modern sculpture made of industrial trash—an interesting idea, but one that our creative director felt was too subtle and detailed to work as a cover image.”

As I begin to read Infinite Jest for the first time, I’m dying to know why Mr. Wallace suggested these photos. I’m looking forward to the images that pop into my head. And I’d love to know what pops into yours.

infinite-jest-circle

Joseph Sullivan founded and edited The Book Design Review, a blog which published over 1,100 posts related to graphic design and the book arts. Find him on Twitter @theBDR.

Read Infinite Jest with a few hundred of your closest friends: 75 pages per week, January 31 – May 2, 2016