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Unfailingly Entertaining or How to Read Infinite Jest

My best friend runs marathons. For fun. On the weekends. This requires lots of training, registration fees, and travel. I’ve always been kind of baffled by this choice of pastime.  When I asked her why she decided to adopt this hobby, she explained that the endurance required to reach the finish line made her feel proud of her achievement. She ran just to prove to herself she could do it.

I still didn’t quite understand how she could get such joy from such an endeavor until I decided to read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Weighing in at 3.2 pounds and 1079 pages, it’s the reader’s equivalent of running a marathon. After successfully completing the novel and actually enjoying it, I thought I’d share some tips for reading this intimidating yet rewarding book.

1. Don’t go it alone. I never would have stuck with it to the end if I hadn’t been reading it along with several other friends. Checking in with each other on our progress and chatting about the various characters and intersecting plotlines helped keep me motivated.

2. Get three bookmarks. I thought I was so smart for purchasing a copy for my Kindle so I wouldn’t have to lug around a 25 cm thick book. It didn’t take me two weeks to search out a physical copy. Infinite Jest is full of foot notes, and flipping back and forth on the Kindle was tedious and time-consuming. You’re going to want a bookmark for your page in the novel, one to mark where you are in the endnotes, and one to mark p. 223 which contains important information to help make sense of the narrative (don’t skip ahead and read that page first, though).

3. Keep a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary handy. Again, I thought the Kindle version would be ideal because I would have instant access to the definitions of the infamously esoteric vocabulary words Wallace sprinkles so effortlessly in every sentence. Alas, even the Kindle dictionary didn’t recognize many of the medical terms. Learning new words was my favorite part of reading, and I would have been lost without the dictionary.

4. Take notes. If I hadn’t used an entire package of post-its and filled a good portion of a slim Moleskin notebook, I wouldn’t have been able to retain so many of the details or appreciate recurring themes.

5. Take a break and watch Hamlet. I prefer the Kenneth Braunaugh version, but there’s also the Mel Gibson version and  a BBC production with David Tennant. DFW took the title from a line in Hamlet: ”Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!” There are other parallels and references worth noting. If you haven’t read it since high school, a good refresher is in order.

6. Don’t give up. I was often wistfully glancing at my stack of YA novels while I trudged through Infinite Jest, longing for linear plots. But now that I’m done, I’m really glad I stuck with it. When you’re finished, you’re going to understand jokes in Parks & Rec that baffle your friends. You’re bound to learn some new vocabulary words while reading. Don’t be surprised if you are soon inviting your friends out for drinks at The Bourgeois Pig to cure your dipsomania, noticing the guilloche on buildings as you stroll downtown, and commenting on the fulvous trees come fall. You might even find yourself nictitating anytime someone mentions Byzantine erotica or refers to a DVD as a cartridge, because you get the joke.

Ultimately, Infinite Jest is a fascinating novel and worth the effort to read it in the same way that marathons are worth it to some athletes. I enjoyed looking for order in the chaos. It’s a book about addiction, about how people fail to communicate with one another, about why we seek entertainment. If for no other reason than to maintain your hipster cred, I’d suggest it to anyone who has ever been curious about this novel.



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