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On Reading Infinite Jest

I read a quote once that said the only way you’re going to be able to read Proust is if you want to be reading Proust. I think the same can be said for Infinite Jest. You don’t read it because you want to see “what happens,” but because you enjoy the book’s voice and texture and the weird world it’s creating.

I’ve dipped in and read some of the Infinite Summer posts when I’ve checked on the schedule, and this seems to be the difference between those who enjoy it and those who don’t: the latter want some kind of payoff, either plotwise (in which case they’re terminally disappointed) or, since the plot-based satisfaction so obviously isn’t going to happen, morality-wise (the whole “read it because it will make you a better person” line). The morality aspect seems like a stretch to me, but it might serve a valuable purpose of motivating someone to keep reading until they learn to enjoy the type of novel Infinite Jest is.

And if they don’t? Well, maybe it’s just not their thing. I don’t have any particular stake in whether big thick postmodern novels are people’s thing or not — for me, the value of Infinite Summer is that it’s exposing people to that kind of thing so that they can make an informed decision on whether it’s their kind of thing (even if the conscious goal of the project is more ambitious and therefore dubious than the humble goal of figuring out a way to get people to try something because maybe they’ll like it).


August 9, 2009 - Posted by | books, David Foster Wallace


  1. i never could read Proust after the first some pages always quit reading thinking, oh i didn’t grow up yet perhaps to understand him something, so it’s not only me, maybe there are some easier reading of him, the first thing to read etc recommendations
    i thought then it’s b/c his personages are always like unsympathetic people (to me) and i can’t empathize with them to follow their stories
    Never happens with Sartre or Camus or Beckett or Gide or Remarque, others’ books what i’ve tried to read so far
    Tolstoi for example i begin to read and like drawn into the book to follow his telling, it like sucks into the story, the book
    but many books i can’t just penetrate into their storytelling, keep skipping the whole sentences and paragraphs, then just quit
    what postmodern i’m not sure i’ve read anything, Pinchon i read i remember, V, crying lot 49, Gravity’s rainbow, now i checked, i forgot the title, so it was okay, but not like i would keep his books like under my pillows, his latest 2 i haven’t read yet
    the same thing with the blogs, what can attract and hold one’s attention or like repel it, i thought it’s not only the ideas, but maybe the sentence structures, words, some of them are like look tasty, amusing, one leading to the other chains, while others are just doing nothing, flat and boring

    Comment by read | August 9, 2009

  2. y in it

    Comment by read | August 9, 2009

  3. for me, the value of Infinite Summer is that it’s exposing people to that kind of thing so that they can make an informed decision on whether it’s their kind of thing

    Do you really have to read all of Infinite Jest to be able to tell if it’s your kind of thing? This seems pretty dubious. If you’re going to enjoy a book for the experience of reading a book, you can generally figure out pretty quickly if it’s the kind of experience you’re going to enjoy, or the kind you’re going to experience more as required reading of some sort. You don’t need a vast blog-and-twitter-sponsored mini-movement for that; you need a casual trip to the library.

    Comment by stras | August 9, 2009

  4. Where did I say you have to read the whole thing, stras? Nowhere. Note that I also said “exposing.” When the book is sitting there inert on the library shelf, people are not being exposed to it. When it becomes a part of a movement, people are. They know other people read it, whereas before even an upper-middle-brow person might have assumed that those were the kind of novels that only critics and professors read. And the peer pressure might help some people to get past their initial annoyance or impatience and figure out how to enjoy those types of novels.

    I’m impressed that you seem somehow to have taken offence at this post.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | August 9, 2009

  5. I wanted to get into an MFA program after college and my writing professor implied he had some pull at Southern Illinois, where Wallace was teaching at the time. I figured I’d better get cracking since Wallace might notice a student in his class with the same last name, and I tried Infinite Jest.

    I ran into a brick wall eventually and put it down. Since similar things had happened with other books I was trying to read because I felt I was “supposed” to read them, I figured I’d just let it come to me as these other books had. A few years later, I thought it had come to me as I expected it would and I only got about half as far as the first time. I was disappointed in myself, but decided at that point it probably just wasn’t for me.

    For this reason, I was relieved to find this post settled on the tone it did.

    Comment by Matt in Toledo | August 10, 2009

  6. I wasn’t offended by your post, Adam, I merely disagreed with part of it. I get that you’re getting something very different out of Infinite Summer than what it seems explicitly designed to do, but that explicit intention is pretty markedly different from your own: it’s not about getting people to see if Infinite Jest is their kind of thing or not; it’s about getting them to read the whole thing, making various reading benchmarks (read page X by date Y), with the subtext being that this is kind of literary broccoli that you have to choke down for your own good. I mean, whatever, at least people are reading something, but I really am bothered by the apparently widely-held (if not by you!) belief that there exist Fun Books, which are amusing and read for entertainment and contain nothing but slight content, and there are Serious Books, which are difficult and read out of obligation and convey hefty meaningful experiences, and never the twain shall meet.

    Comment by stras | August 12, 2009

  7. There are a lot of blog posts at Infinite Summer talking about how much fun Infinite Jest is, including some from people who originally thought it was going to be one of those grim “assignment”-style broccoli books. Not to defend Infinite Summer overly! Just to point out that yet again, you have overshot your mark here.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | August 12, 2009

  8. I am finding Infinite Jest to be a Fun Book that requires a decent amount of prodding for me to keep reading. So there! You’re both right!

    Comment by k-sky | August 12, 2009

  9. Well, I guess I’m being all curmudgeonly then!

    Comment by stras | August 13, 2009

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