“a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy”

I first noticed David Foster Wallace in an interview on Charlie Rose, years ago.  He seemed like an interesting guy, and a clever one, with a certain nerdy charm.  I finally got around to reading something by him a few years back, an essay in Harper’s titled Tense Present:  Democracy, English, and the wars over usage.  That one interested me quite a bit, especially as an English teacher, both because it intelligently defends prescriptivism, and because it injects what might have been an incredibly dry, academic, topic with wit, humor, and clarity.

Wallace killed himself in September of last year, at age 46, after a lifelong struggle with depression.  About the time he died, I picked up a copy of his essay collection, Consider the Lobster, which contains the above-mentioned essay, retitled and, perhaps, reworked a bit as “Authority and American Usage.”  I really enjoyed the collection, and decided I’d have to give his masterpiece, Infinite Jest, at some point.

It just so happens that there’s a project kicking off this summer, a virtual reading group of sorts, centered around reading that lengthy and complicated work.  It’s called Infinite Summer, and it kicks off the Sunday, June 21st, and runs through September 22nd.  Even better, Matthew Baldwin, of Defective Yeti fame, is one of the organizers of the project.  That was impetus enough for me.  I bought a copy this week and am now 32 pages into its 1079 (counting the footnotes, which make up about 100 pages of that).

So far, it’s a witty romp which reminds me a bit of John Barth and Lawrence Sterne.  It’s not a fast read, but it’s not needlessly difficult.  And it’s certainly more comprehensible than plenty of other lengthy, sophisticated novels.  So, I think I’m hooked.  I may or may not be able to keep up with the reading schedule, but I’m committed to reading the book and to inflicting my observations about it upon you, gentle reader.

(Harper’s has recently published their DFW pieces as free PDFs.  So, if you’d like a free taste, dive in.)


  1. I’m not crazy about Wallace the way some people are, but his article in the Atlantic on John Ziegler, titled Host, is pretty amazing. Also apparently nigh-unprintable.

  2. My one experience with Barth was Chimera way back during one of my last-ever lit courses in college. I rather liked it, particularly the Scheherezade part. Ever teach him or just read him?

    Of course I wish you Godspeed with Infinite Jest. I will perhaps pick it up someday when I’m not playing against the clock. In the meantime, I’m sure I’ll probably dip into Lobster and/or Oblivion again sometime this summer while you’re battling the white whale.

  3. Shepcat, I’ve never taught Barth, though I’m a fan. I thought of teaching “Night-Sea Journey,” and that might, in fact, make a good addition to my American Lit. II class, come to think of it. But I am, up until now, just a fan. I’ve read (and enjoyed) The Floating Opera, The End of the Road, The Sot-Weed Factor, Lost in the Funhouse, and what I’ve read of The Friday Book. I had intended to do my MA thesis on Barth until I discovered Barnes.

    I still think you should sign on. I have no idea if I can keep up or not, but I’m starting along with the rest of the herd. :)

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