I lived a lifetime reading Infinite Jest.
The book, by David Foster Wallace, is 1,079 pages long. Approximately 100 pages of that are endnotes. No, you can’t skip them.
It was one of the easiest reading experiences of my life.
Well, kind of.
When I say I lived a lifetime reading the book, I mean a few things:
I went through a lot spiritually, emotionally, and mentally during.
My first attempt was between my sophomore and junior years of college.
I’ve tried every summer since 2013.
So, yes, I actually finally read it and that was easy and great, but it took almost a decade to get me there.
A Poor Attempt At Explaining The Plot and Themes
Infinite Jest is about addiction. And communication. And capitalism. And grief. And Quebec separatism. And tennis.
Most of it takes place in Boston at either the elite Enfield Tennis Academy or the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House. Then there’s also some wheelchair assassins talking on a cliff in Arizona. These stories don’t really connect at first, but over the course of the novel, they spiral and interweave at an exponential rate.
It also takes place in “the future” (possibly 2008, 2009, or 2011) where time is subsidized by brands and corporations, something has eliminated New England’s map for keeps and now it’s just the Great Concavity, and people watch TV and movies via InterLace cartridges.
Speaking of movies—there’s talk of a cartridge that, when viewed, causes a person to become so obsessed and addicted they can’t look away and want nothing else in life but to watch it, eventually wasting away and dying. The Quebec separatist wheelchair assassins want this cartridge. And the director of what is called The Entertainment was James Orin Incandenza (father to our main character Hal) who committed suicide before actually finishing or releasing The Entertainment.
And The Entertainment’s actual title was, you guessed it:
I learned about Infinite Jest when I was in high school I think. That’s when I started getting into postmodern literature such as House of Leaves (my favorite book) and experimental or ergodic media in general. I was very into what I as a person in a rural conservative Midwestern/Southern town considered weird, esoteric, “underground”.
However, I didn’t buy the brick until college. I don’t remember if I bought it for this specific challenge, but for all intents and purposes, my first real attempt at reading Infinite Jest was inspired by the Infinite Summer challenge. Infinite Summer took place in 2009, from June 21st to September 21st. Around 10 or 11 pages a day, every day. And there were forums and blog posts from guides and guest posts and everything. People like John Green and Colin Meloy even participated.
I obviously did not participate then. But I heard about Infinite Summer in college, and I decided to follow the schedule.
In all the years I’ve attempted since then, I usually get about 10 days in before I fall off the wagon so to speak.
This time, I bought the eBook. That way, I could read right when I woke up, or during a work break, etc. Way easier than lugging that giant tome around with like 6 bookmarks.
There were days I didn’t follow the schedule. In particular, I missed a few weeks because my schedule no longer allowed for me to read in the morning. But even though I missed more than two days in a row,1 I always managed to carve out some time to get caught up.
I also managed to get COVID during the final week, so that freed up a lot of time to read.
Like, why the fuck did I do this?
Part of me loved the challenge. Like, yeah, I’m one of the people who’s read Infinite Jest. It’s like how I’m a bit of a smug asshole about having read Ulysses. And I loved the additional challenge of reading a bit of it every day for an entire season.
But then there’s the actual experience of reading it. I laughed. I cried. I almost threw up. I was terrified.
Do not pay attention to the stigma around Infinite Jest, that it’s just for pretentious dude douchebags who take women on bad dates or something. Infinite Jest is one of the most earnest books I’ve ever read. It has such love and care and compassion for its characters; this is doubly important considering most of our characters are teenage boys or people battling drug and alcohol addiction.
I was actually a bit surprised by that. I expected an almost Kubrickian sterile perfection. To be fair, some scenes are. But a postmodern ironic masterpiece it is not. At no point when reading did I get the sense DFW was playing with me. Yes, even the whole endnotes thing. Challenging me? Absolutely. But it never felt like he was doing something just to show off or get one over on me.
So I’m glad I didn’t approach the book like a problem to be solved.
I didn’t annotate or consult a fan wiki or anything like that while reading. I didn’t try to figure out what it all meant. I submitted to the author and the text, and I surrendered to the journey they took me on. I let Infinite Jest happen to me. If you decide to read it, I recommend you do the same.
What did I learn?
When I read the last sentence, I looked up and said, “Oh my god, I finished it,” my voice full of awe and disbelief.
And I proceeded to have a transcendental existential experience walking to work. I work in Cambridge, so I walk through Boston and Inman Square and all that every day. The final sentence lingered in my brain for that entire 3.5 miles. I thought about all the things this book made me feel and how I was in the place where it all happened. I was connected to these characters and their lives, as if the network of people in the book now included me.
It all felt so mystical—as if I were merging with something divine. Exploring that feeling helped me articulate to myself and to my therapist that I was lacking the spiritual and metaphysical in my life. I haven’t meditated or gone to any retreats in a few years. I haven’t left the Buddhist path or anything, but I haven’t had the mental capacity for that aspect of my life. I moved, COVID happened, my (now former) relationship spiked my anxiety, work gave me a nervous breakdown, and I had to switch meds every month or so. I can’t even keep my house clean, let alone build a meditation habit again.
Reading Infinite Jest, no joke, gave me the space to calm my mind and let wonder and luminosity flow in.
And I learned that I could actually do this. I could finish this very long book that not a lot of people finish, even after trying and failing for almost a decade.
On the first page, Hal Incandenza thinks, “I am in here.”
He is in here, inside me, as is the book. And so am I.
For habits, it’s okay to miss one day. Just don’t miss two in a row. ↩︎