After starting Infinite Jest on January 1st, I finished reading it this past Sunday. That's not to say that it took me almost 7 solid months to read. I took my time with it and read several other books simultaneously. I would read parts of IJ, then put it down for a few days. Gave myself time to digest it small chunks at a time. I was in no hurry and had no real deadline other than the self-imposed, "I will finish this book before January 1st of next year." So success!
I went into reading Infinite Jest with very little knowledge aside from basically what's on the back of the book. I also avoided reading any reviews, blog posts, message boards etc. to keep from inadvertently coming across any spoilers and to avoid starting the book with pre-concieved notions. I had only ever read one other thing by David Foster Wallace before this: His 2005 Kenyon College commencement address. (Side note: Whether you loved, hated or haven't read Infinite Jest, please read this commencement address. It's outstanding.) All I really knew was that a lot of people considered this book "important" and also "difficult." I'd heard from countless people stories of determined-yet-ultimately-failed attempts to read it.
Since finishing IJ, I've had more than one person ask me, "Was it worth it?" Which, to paraphrase President Clinton, it all depends on what you mean by "it."
For me, "it" was simply completing the book. No skimming, no subtitle skipping, no reader's guide help. What got me interested in the first place was how intimidated people were by this book. I thought, "If this was written by the guy who gave that commencement address, I'm sure I can find something to like in it." And I did like it. Loved parts of it, in fact. But there's an added level of satisfaction because I no longer wonder if I "can make it though" IJ. Because I did. If it's the literary equivalent of running a marathon, than I ran that mofo. Bring on Thomas Pynchon. Well, after my wrists heal from holding this goddamn book up for so long.
Of course, now that I've finished reading it, I've been (along with letting the book sink in) reading reviews, critiques, blogs etc. I've found it especially interesting to look at the most glowingly positive reviews and the absolute most negative. I sometimes like trying to get a feel for something based on the most extreme views. Plus, middle-of-the-road "it was ok" reviews are boring.
Let's look at some of the more prevalent themes!
Frequent themes of negative reviews:
- "The title of the book tells you everything you need to know and David Foster Wallace is basically playing a joke on you."
- "There is no resolution! No ending!"
- "I quit."
- "It's navel gazing, intellectual tripe."
I guess I have a harder time labeling a work of fiction as "navel gazing." I associate the phrase with first person accounts by authors who think they're amazing and deep and that every word they utter is a gift to their readers. And I do hate books like that. But I think it takes a lot more talent for an author to separate themselves from the audience with fictional characters. A lot of the book takes place inside various character's heads. The reader is basically in their brain, along for the ride as they process and experience things. You're also along for a lot of "flashbacks" and memories. I happen to really like to be in the brain of a character. I like to see their personal philosophies and drives develop and to know what occurred that may have shaped those views. Sure these cerebral insights are too "navel-gazy" for some people. It's clear early on that you're in for a ton of this with IJ, so if it's not something you dig, it will be a stumbling block to your enjoyment for sure.
Frequent themes of positive reviews
- "Does Infinite Jest qualify as post-modern?"
- "Infinite Jest is complex, amazing, etc. and now I will summarize it."
- "This book was so amazing, I will now try to say something equally as deep and amazing to attempt to adequately describe how much I loved it."
- "When I finished the book I immediately started reading it again! I'm obsessed!"
So was it worth it? For me, yes. If you consider mental challenges (however you define them) fun and rewarding, it will be worth it for you as well.
And for the people out there who still feel intimidated or unsure, I leave you with this: No book that mentions farts and farting this much is beyond your ability to read and conquer. You can do this.