Reading “Infinite Jest”

Reading Infinite Jest feels like running a race. Sometimes it’s painful, frustrating, and hard to get through. Other times it’s a breeze. There were days I wanted to throw the book across the room and days I couldn’t put it down. Endurance is a large part of the process of reading it. I can’t say that it’s a book for everyone or that it’s an entirely enjoyable process. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read though.

The book offers a lengthy meditation on how people avoid and cope with life through drugs, entertainment, sex, etc. The theme runs throughout both the book’s narrative and through the reading experience. David Foster Wallace (DFW) makes a strong statement that the purpose of literature and reading isn’t solely entertainment. It’s about learning, Identifying with others, growing as a person, and recognizing oneself.

These themes are clear without being overt. The actual story is much less coherent. I’d be lying if I said I understood more than 75% to 80% of what happened in the book’s conclusion (luckily Google exists). My immediate thoughts after finishing was that “I should read this again now that I know what happens” and then “That’s insane. Maybe in another five years or so.”

It took me four months to get through Infinite Jest (my reading schedule is at the bottom of this post). I tried (and mostly succeeded) reading about 10 pages a night. I fell behind a bit as I got caught presenting papers at conferences, traveling, and writing other papers for classes, so I read 20 pages a day for the last few weeks of the book. If you want to read Infinite Jest, I’d suggest trying to read 10 pages of the main text (and the necessary endnotes) a day. Here’s how I approached it though:

Week 1: Page 63 (6%)
Week 2: Page 137 (13%)
Week 3: Page 210 (21%)
Week 4: Page 284 (28%)
Week 5: Page 358 (36%)
Week 6: Page 432 (44%)
Week 7: Page 506 (51%)
Week 8: Page 580 (59%)
Week 9: Page 653 (66%)
Week 10: Page 727 (74%)
Week 11: Page 801 (81%)
Week 12: Page 875 (89%)
Week 13: Page 981 (100%)

And here are some general suggestions for reading it. First, find a piece of paper to use as a bookmark and write down the chronology of the years in subsidized time (listed on page 223) before you start. Although some people might argue that understanding the chronology would make things less fragmented for the reader, ultimately taking away from the goal of the book’s structure, I found it helpful for my first reading. Second, finish every paragraph before you go and look at the endnotes. Because some of the endnotes are pages long, you want to finish DFW’s thought in the main text before looking at the endnotes.

Now I’m gonna go reread D.T. Max’s biography of DFW. I’d love to talk to you if you’ve read the book or are planning on reading it.