In the underrated Mike Judge film Idiocracy, Luke Wilson is unfrozen centuries in the future where people have become so stupid that a two-hour video of a man’s naked, farting ass wins four Oscars, and Wilson has to run around desperately trying to convince everyone on the planet that humans will go extinct unless they stop irrigating their dying crops with Gatorade.70
Which got me thinking: Will anybody still be reading Infinite Jest 100 years from now?
One of the enduring appeals of writing a book has always been that it doesn’t seem so ephemeral. Especially in an age of new media, a book feels like a lasting creation, a thing of permanence. We still have Bibles that rolled off Gutenberg’s press lying around our climate-controlled archives, and so there’s no reason someone couldn’t be curled up with that romance novel of yours late at night in the year 2525.
This is a self-delusion of authors, of course. Very few books outlive the people who wrote them. Looking back at the publishing year 1896 (100 years before IJ) the only novels I can see that anyone’s still reading with any regularity were both written by HG Wells.71
In 2005, the Guardian polled 500 British book clubs book club readers and asked them which novels written in the 20th Century (and the first few years of the 21st Century) would be considered classics a century hence. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the sample, the list is about half-filled with recent book club faves–The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Star of the Sea, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Atonement, The Handmaid’s Tale.72 The Guardian kind of sneers at this result,738 but it might not be so far off. These are works of popular fiction with a lot of copies in print and a large group of individuals evangelizing for them. There are reasons to think some might have a chance at enduring
Infinite Jest, at least in 2009, certainly has plenty of rabid evangelizers. It has some apparent obstacles to its longevity, however. Infinite Summer started with thousands of enthusiastic and determined readers. Based on activity in the comments and the forums and on Twitter, I’d guess that through attrition we are already less than half what we were. That kind of drop-out rate could be punishing to the book over the years. The amount of time and effort it takes to read, digest, and discuss makes it an unlikely candidate to be taught widely in undergraduate classrooms (although obviously it can be done). Wallace’s persistent, casual use of brand names and pop-culture references74 would make this novel considerably more difficult to read down the road–imagine what adding a full complement of footnotes on top of the original endnotes would do the level of difficulty.75 IJ is also distinctly American, which cuts a couple of ways, I suspect.
As deliberately tempting as Wallace makes it to quit reading this book, you have to figure, in the long run, that everyone might take him up on it eventually.
On the other hand.
I’ve had a lot of people over the years try to pass Infinite Jest into my hands, and there was always a kind of urgency to their plea that was frankly kind of off-putting. I think now that urgency might be related to this sense, perhaps unconscious, that this book by its very nature might be in jeopardy of deleting its own map. I don’t think I’d ever say that any single book is necessary, but anyone who connects with a novel the way so many have with Infinite Jest is clearly going to be distressed by the possibility that it might be on the endangered list, even a few years down the road. I suspect the intensity with which people try to push this novel on other readers is related to the sense that it might be endangered, somehow. That as epic and important and groundbreaking as it is, its future might not be ensured. If there has been a level of desperation in the pleas to me by IJ lovers over the years, I now understand it.
In Idiocracy, Luke Wilson eventually convinces the morons of the future that water isn’t poisonous. Addressing them he says, “There was a time when reading wasn’t just for fags.76 And neither was writing. People wrote books and movies–movies with stories that made you care about whose ass it was and why it was farting. And I believe that time can come again!”
I might even work on a version of that speech when it’s time for me to start pushing Infinite Jest on my friends.