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How to Read Infinite Jest

06.17.09 | 75 Comments

The following was drafted by Matt Bucher (maintainer of the wallace-l listserv and author of this post), and augmented by input from Nick Maniatis (administrator of The Howling Fantods, a site devoted to DFW), and Kathleen Fitzpatrick (professor at Pomona College, who teaches a course entitled David Foster Wallace).

There’s no wrong way to read Infinite Jest: front-to-back, upside-down, cut in half, or skipping around. But here are a few tips for the Infinite Jester.

  1. Read the endnotes: Please. They are not boring bibliographic details, but rather an integral part of the text. And the bouncing back-and-forth is a feature, not a bug.

  2. Use bookmarks: Yes “bookmarks”, plural: one for the main text and one for the endnotes. Doing so will save you hours of searching, and the aggravation of losing your place several times an hour.

  3. Persevere to page 200: There are several popular way stations on the road to abandoning Infinite Jest. The most heavily trafficked by far is “The Wardine Section”. Where the opening pages of IJ are among the best written in the book, page 37 (and many pages thereafter) are in a tortured, faux-Ebonics type dialect. “Wardine say her momma ain’t treat her right.” “Wardine be cry.” Potentially offensive (if one wants to be offended), and generally hard to get through. Hang in there, ignore the regional parlance, and focus on what the characters are doing. Like most things in the book, you’ll need to know this later. Likewise for the other rough patches to be found in the first fifth of the novel.

  4. Trust the author: Around page 50, you’re going to feel a sinking sense of dread, as it dawns on you how much stuff you’ll be asked to keep track of: lots of characters coming and going, subplots upon subplots, page long sentences, and more. You have to believe that what seems at first like a bunch of disconnected vignettes (like The Wardine Section) will in fact come together; that the connections among what seem like radically disparate plot lines really do make themselves apparent in time. But at first, it requires something of a focus on the local plot lines, and a leap of faith in the fact that the global picture will eventually resolve.

  5. Flag, copy, or bookmark page 223: Page 223 of the novel contains some information that you will either need to internalize or refer to frequently to make sense of the narrative. Once you reach it, flag the page with a stickie, dogear the corner, photocopy the material, stick a (third) bookmark there–whatever will ensure that you can find this information when you need it.

  6. Don’t do the thing you’re dying to do right now: Namely, flip to page 223 to see what we’re talking about. David Foster Wallace ordered the book the way he did for a reason, and part of step 4 above is respecting that. In fact, we encourage you to take the fingers-in-the-ears “LA LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU” approach to spoilers in general.

  7. Abuse your copy: When you are finished, 223 should be just one of many mutilated pages in your novel. Liberal use of tape flags, post-it notes, highlighting, or your anal-retentive page marking device of choice, as a means of keeping track of key passages you think you might like to come back to (or share with others), is encouraged. (Note: the preceding advice is not recommended for those reading on the Kindle.) If you can’t bring yourself to work over your only copy of Infinite Jest, consider investing in a second.

  8. Keep notes: As if lugging around a book the size of a 2 br. 1¼ bath apartment isn’t enough, you may want to carry a notebook as well. You won’t always have the requisite Oxford English Dictionary within arm’s reach, you know.

  9. Brush up on your Hamlet: It’s no coincidence that the first two words of Hamlet are “Who’s there?” and the first two words of Infinite Jest are “I am”. Even the novel’s title was lifted from the play.

    As you read, it behooves you keep in mind the relationships between the characters in Shakespeare’s drama (the ghost, poor Yorick, etc.) and the central themes of the play. You can find a brief primer here.

  10. Employ a reader’s guide: There are two companion guides that you may find helpful. One is Stephen Burn’s David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: A Reader’s Guide. Burn’s guide is rather short (96 pages), but it includes a helpful chronology , as well as sections on the novel’s critical reception and key plot points.

    Another guide is Greg Carlisle’s Elegant Complexity: A Study of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. [Full disclosure: Bucher is the editor & publisher of the Carlisle book.] Elegant Complexity is different than the Burn guide in that it offers a summary and exegesis on every section of the novel–and that it’s 512 pages long. Also included are chronologies, family trees, thematic discussions, and a map of the tennis academy.

  11. Use online references: There are copious webpages out there that the first-time Jesters will find useful. Here are a a few:

    You can find links to more resources at The Howling Fantods.

    Obviously many of these sites contain spoilers, so poke a hole in an index card and only view your monitor through that while visiting one.