David Foster Wallace’s mammoth novel Infinite Jest has been sitting on my shelf, unread, for at leat 5 years. I have noted on frequent occassions that it’s a book that I should probably read at some point, but for various reasons, I could never find a time that felt right to read it. I’m not intimidated by its size. My favorite author is Neal Stephenson, and that guy hasn’t written a novel shorter than 900 pages since the mid-90s (including the 3 part, 2700 page Baroque Cycle). To me, the problem was always that this novel seemed to be one of those post-modern exercises in literary style and cleverness, and my tolerance for such wankery had waned after reading the hugely complex and impenetrable Gravity’s Rainbow (a book I like, to be sure, but that also made me want to chill out for a while). I’m generally a story-is-king kinda guy, so books that focus on exploring language and narrative style ahead of story and plot tend to grate on me unless they’re really well done. It’s not that such books are bad or that I can’t enjoy them, it’s just that I think it’s a very difficult feat, and so whenever a new book of this style comes along, I have to wonder whether it’s worth the trouble.
So the book has sat on my shelf, unread. In the wake of the author’s untimely death last year, it seems that some fans have taken it upon themselves to encourage people to read Wallace’s masterpiece. Their challenge:
Join endurance bibliophiles from around the world in reading Infinite Jest over the summer of 2009, June 21st to September 22nd. A thousand pages1 ÷ 92 days = 75 pages a week. No sweat.
1. Plus endnotesa.
a. A lot of them.
They’re calling it Infinite Summer. Despite the strange mixture of measurement units in their equation (one would think the result would be in pages/day, but whatever), 75 pages a week does indeed sound like no sweat. And as luck would have it, I ran accross that site around the same time I was finishing up a book, and reading through some of the entries there finally made me interested enough to pick up the book and give it a shot.
I haven’t read that much of it yet, but so far, I’m quite enjoying it. It’s not nearly as pretentious as I feared, though it’s obviously not beach or airport reading material either. It seems to rate somewhere between Cryptonomicon/Baroque Cycle and Gravity’s Rainbow in terms of reading difficulty, though this may need some revision as I get further into the novel. When I read novels like this, there is a part of me that wants to stop everytime I find something I don’t know about and figure that out before continuing. I read Gravity’s Rainbow in that way, and there were times where it would take me an hour to read a single page. But after reading Jason Kottke’s forward, I think I’m just going to relax this time around:
…you don’t need to be an expert in much of anything to read and enjoy this novel. It isn’t just for English majors or people who love fiction or tennis players or recovering drug addicts or those with astronomical IQs. Don’t sweat all the Hamlet stuff; you can worry about those references on the second time through if you actually like it enough to read it a second time. Leave your dictionary at home; let Wallace’s grammatical gymnastics and extensive vocabulary wash right over you; you’ll get the gist and the gist is more than enough. Is the novel postmodern or not? Who f’ing cares…the story stands on its own.
And thus I’ve begun my nfinite Summer…