A Summer of "Infinite Jest" Comes to an End


By Stephen Lowman

At 11:30 p.m. on a recent Sunday, Matthew Baldwin finished "Infinite Jest." This is no small feat. David Foster Wallace's postmodern novel is notoriously complex and -- at over a 1,000 pages -- lengthy.

Thankfully, Baldwin had some help. A writer for The Morning News, he created an online book club called Infinite Summer. At the site Baldwin, along with three other guides, would write summaries, facilitate discussion among readers and provide encouragement. The goal was to start the book in mid-June and finish it by Sept. 22. I spoke with Baldwin recently about the end of Infinite Summer.

Congrats on finishing the book! Were you ever worried that the project would lose steam? That people would get halfway through and just set it aside?

Well, I think that happened to a large extent. Probably about halfway through we had this big exodus of people saying, "I'm tired of this book. I don't like it. There is no plot. Nothing seems to be happening."

But that distilled our readership. The ones that were left were really enthusiastic about it. A lot of the time it was the people who were the most enthusiastic about it at the beginning -- "I'm gonna love this book! I am so excited this happening!" -- who were disillusioned halfway through the book.

Why is that?

I think they may have over romanticized how engaging the book was going to be, or how rewarding an experience it was going to be. When it turned out to be not that easy, and it didn't give them that instant gratification, they were the ones who kind of went by the wayside.

How did Infinite Summer get started?

The conceit was that the four of us who were the guides had never read the book. So the idea was that we read it for the first time and record our thoughts as we went through it. I think the reason people got on board were similar to my own. They had this book for a long time, or had heard about it for a long time, but it is just such an imposing volume that it's not just something you pick up on a whim one day and actually expect to finish.

They needed an impetus to get them started and see it through to the conclusion. I've likened it to a marathon many times -- not just because running a marathon and reading a thousand page book are feats of endurance but because, when you think about it objectively, there is no objective reason to run 22.6 miles. It's just a thing that people do together and have this sense of accomplishment once they are done.

What do you takeaway from "Infinite Jest"?

At some point there is a realization that while you have been reading this darkly ironic book, a counter message has also been sneaking into your subconscious. We live in a society that is so steeped in irony and sarcasm that the message of sincerity is almost a Trojan horse in such a postmodern book. The crux of the book is the importance of people opening up to each other and being willing to bear their souls.

"Infinite Jest" is famous for its hundreds of endnotes, some of which have footnotes. What is your opinion of endnotes now that you have finished?

There are lots of justifications for why they are there but I never bought any of them. I was just like, "I am sorry David. I think you just love endnotes." The funny thing is, we started using endnotes for the essays we wrote for the site. I thought after the first week or so we would get tired of that gimmick. But we didn't. They are very addictive! I am adding endnotes to emails now.

So what happens with the site now?

We are going to tackle another big book in January and February of 2010, probably [Roberto Bolano's] "2666". But from October through to Halloween we are reading "Dracula." We are calling it our "palate cleanser."

By Steven E. Levingston |  October 1, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Steven Levingston
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