2018: The year Infinite Jest took over my life

Commentary: I put off reading David Foster Wallace's famously encyclopedic book for two decades. Finally digging in was the best and worst thing I did this year.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
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Scott Stein
6 min read
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A friend gave me a copy of Infinite Jest 20 years ago when I was a grad student in theater. I got rid of it several moves later when I realized I'd never get to the 1,076-page tome. 

I bought the famous David Foster Wallace novel again during a Kindle sale in December 2012. I paid $3.99. It sat at the bottom of my built-up collection of books to read, threatening me. Someday, I told myself, I'll read it. Years went by.

This year became the year I took on Infinite Jest, after having considered it a Big Book I'd Read candidate since 2015. Each year, I try to take on a seemingly daunting book (Moby Dick one year, Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 in 2017, Dune a couple of years before that). Maybe it was the feeling of absurdity in the air in 2018, or my growing distress over the state of the world and my sense of helplessness in it, or that I've been reading more over the last few years, possibly as an escape valve. I'd started Infinite Jest a number of times, never making it more than a couple of pages. 

It was one of 18 books I read this year, but it gobbled up months. Looking back, that span of time feels devoured, or annihilated. From mid-June to mid-October, Facebook friends warned they started in and quit after several hundred pages. Articles have been written on how few people have read the whole thing. I decided to keep at it. Reading it started to feel like the only thing I did. Some days were awful. Some were transcendent. 

I'd recommend you read Infinite Jest, too, though it's a tale of self-administered suffering. And depression.

And maybe it was a perfect way to spend a third of 2018, a year that felt like an unending, unfunny joke, a year when every day seemed to turn up clusters of awful news, random tragedies and viral moments that seemed to obsess everyone for a few minutes before dissolving into nothing. It was a year that created increasing sensations of time distortion, that kept me in a general nonstop feeling of increasing stress that occasionally fell into a regular rhythm that let me squeeze in some work.

Come along with me and my Infinite Jest tweets, why don't you.

I spent a fair amount of my Infinite Jest reading time also playing Mario Tennis (on the Switch). They're both about tennis. I guess there's not much more of a connection, but the degree to which I was terrible at Mario Tennis seemed to start bleeding into my reading of the story of the kids at Enfield Tennis Academy, the place where Hal Incandenza and his brother work themselves mad trying to become tennis prodigies. To what end? My first few hundred pages of Infinite Jest continued like that, to no end.

And then I kept going. Like everything else this year. Another page, another commute on New Jersey Transit, another morning, another evening, another article, another tweet.

What shocked me was how much of the book felt appropriate for the moment. It's an absurd vision of the future, but back in 1996, its ideas both hit the mark and fell short. The world of 2018 is easily the world of Infinite Jest, and also, it's not. 

A long section on the rise and fall of video phones felt like a parable on the rise and fall of all new technologies. It's such a good summation it feels like the precursor of Silicon Valley startup culture. 

And the book's InterLace world of on-demand viewing predated Netflix, our all-entombing internet, our endless flow of content, and the Ready Player One-like existence of all things existing at once, for our endless amusement.

And if you want to get really meta about Infinite Jest, do it over how Infinite Jest has bred infinite content about itself. I thought I was traveling alone, and then I discovered the massive wikis. The page-by-page guides, like video game walk-throughs. I could stop at every strange spot and read the definition to every ridiculous word placed like a doorstop in my progress, or wonder about the interconnectedness of every minor mention, like the biggest collective recap to the biggest oddball TV show ever made.

And yes, there's some political relevance. Infinite Jest is about an imperialist America, a former lounge-singer president who's obsessed with cleaning up the nation at all costs, and endless conspiracies. The North American empire has taken over/merged with Mexico and Canada, and the US-Canada border has shifted to allow toxic garbage to be catapulted into an abandoned, out-of-sight wasteland. Idiocracy, revisited.

And, of course, Infinite Jest is about an impossibly dangerous film, an obscure project that entertains people to death. Since Infinite Jest was first published, that concept feels like it's traveled to the moon and back. This year, I read it and thought more of how content itself feels infinite now. I'm drowning in it. 

Instead of reading Infinite Jest for four months, I could've been trying to dig into my never-ending Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime queues, lists of videos that often disappear before I can ever get to them as the content licenses shift. Games piled up in digital libraries I impulse-buy. A Kindle book list that's grown to hundreds, and keeps growing a rate that's far faster than my reading speed. Infinite music. Promises of podcasts. A Twitter feed that will keep moving with my eyes until the end of time.

There are parts of Infinite Jest that feel like the most savage futuristic satire ever made, a Super Sad True Love Story before Super Sad True Love Story. Other parts feel as gritty and sad and true as the best Stephen King. Still others are full of unexpected horror, beyond anything I expected. Other areas are thorny and annoying and filled with vocabulary challenges, and feel designed to irritate. Some parts feel like a Wes Anderson movie. Some feel like every McSweeney's book I bought and never read. Some parts feel like everything I love about David Lynch.

I hated how the book took over my attention span. I also couldn't stop it. And I was determined to climb the mountain. Much like Celeste, the game I kept at playing a few months before that. Would I succeed? Would this be a way of accomplishing something in a year where I felt I failed at so many things, like losing weight, being a better dad, keeping my life in better order, doing something more to help this fractured world?

And as I read about so many characters dealing with depression, I realized how depressed I feel, and have felt. I've been numbed. I've cried a lot. I've wondered what to do about it. I need to get a therapist.

I finished Infinite Jest Oct. 13. 

And I moved on. I should've felt more upbeat about finishing. In a year where I felt like I never accomplished what I set out to do, at least reading Infinite Jest was something. But I feel no better or worse now for having read it.

And it lingers.

And now, there are so many things I see that still remind me of it.

Because, really, Infinite Jest describes everything now. And that feeling of infinite dread still hasn't gone away.

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