Infinite Jest

2020-11-28T22:09:55-05:00

For the past 11 months I've been reading Infinite Jest, a book by David Foster Wallace.

Infinite Jest is 981 pages long plus 100 pages of footnotes, but the mere length of the book isn't the reason it took so long to finish. Within the pages is a cryptic story that does not lend itself to easy reading. Big words are used. Words that don't actually exist in the English language. You're probably wondering if I've figured out the secrets behind the pages. If I'm being honest by the end I could hardly recall what the original plot line was. After a year of on and off reading, I'm left reflecting on how I got to this point.

Why was I even reading this book? I received it as a gift for Christmas last year. I think Dad was going off a list of top 100 influential books he found on BuzzFeed or something -- little did he know he'd be sending me on a year long adventure. Why did I pick this book over the other ones I was given? Not sure. I guess the title is kinda cool. I like infinity.

Weirdly, throughout the year I kept bumping into this book online. The narrative of this glorious Bookstore Vlog features a man struggling to find the time to finish IJ. George Hotz lists it as one of his favourite books. Aaron Swartz wrote an in-depth analysis on what happens in the end -- which I waited all year to read. Needless to say, this book is well praised and shows up in the pop-culture circles I've found myself wrapped up in. While I was discovering these references all over the internet the need to finish the book grew more and more within me. My procrastination worsened.

What did I get out of all this then? I've tried to determine what there is to gain from reading this book; at this point I've devoted countless hours to it's existence. All this time I could have been reading different books, making money, indulging in harmless addiction. Infinite Jest is about pleasure, it's about entertainment and our connection to it. It's about our impulse to give up what we know to be meaningful for short term enjoyment. Or perhaps it's saying that if you're not careful short term enjoyment becomes all the meaning you have in life. I'm unsure whether the book told me this or if my knowledge of the book tells me this. It's like Shakespeare, where everyone says its great but we're not sure if it would still be great if people didn't tell us it was. I don't think it matters here; Infinite Jest is great even on a meta level.

This book stares back and laughs at you. It just asks for a couple hours of your time. To set aside the TikToks and to sit in silence and stay concentrated. As if it has predicted that by the time the reader has found this book, they too will have succumbed to the Infinite Jest that is described within. I find this idea to be both interesting and devastating. Because I know that I too have issues with staying focused and not getting distracted by simple, fruitless pleasures. I have to fight to keep the ability to maintain an attention span. This whole year has been a battle for time, I would go weeks without having the energy to return to the fight and march on to the next chapter.

As with all journeys, there's been ups and downs. The middle of this year definitely threw a curve ball at everyone. Being locked inside caused my reading habit to go completely out the window. There's just too many other things that steal away my attention while I'm at home. It's frustrating because I know I enjoy reading -- I just constantly choose easier content to consume. Deciding to curl up in bed and watch youtube videos instead of getting up, having the lights on and reading is a very comfy decision -- one I've been making a lot lately.

Along the way I kept track of some of the prose that I found thought-provoking. I enjoyed a lot of the writing on tennis. I've always been a fan of competitive 1-on-1 sports. Having played my fair share of badminton and chess, I can empathize with the battle stories and art-of-war-analysis.

Tennis's beauty's infinite roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win. Which is why tennis is an essentially tragic enterprise, to improve and grow as a serious junior, with ambitions. You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place. It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely.

In a way this competitive dance is an exercise in self-reflection, a constant battle for control over one's own emotions and physical precision. Strangely a perfect player is not one who is loved nor are they praised. The player everyone wants to be is the one who is clearly human yet overcomes their flaws and has such fortitude that they become more than what is imaginable. I think we as humans strive for advancement in a way that we're programmed to push further and further -- but I wonder to what extent. Is it within the laws of nature that we forever push forwards until like a phoenix we combust and start our painful journey over again. We repeat. I don't know whether to embrace this impulse for progression or to reject it and try to find my own way.

It's actually pretty hard to quote this book without writing out an entire page of text. The same train of thought is usually considered for multiple paragraphs with an excruciating level of detail. If I was to share a specific line or two, I would be leaving out a page's worth of context that builds up to that line. And I might not even understand the context. I just like the way those one or two lines sound in my head. I wish I could give you my copy so you could read the pages I tagged and you could tell me what interesting parts I missed out on.

To be envied, admired, is not a feeling. Nor is fame a feeling. There are feelings associated with fame, but few of them are any more enjoyable than the feelings associated with envy of fame.

One discussion that takes place within Infinite Jest is on the growth of an individual and the need one feels to succeed. It is pointed out that all these young tennis players are brought to this academy so that they can live a life of some degree of normalcy. The exercises are grooling, the instructors are unforgiving, and everyone is in pain. All the kids want is to make it to the other side; the Show. During their time at the academy they are protected from themselves. Of course the boys are amazing at the game, but it does them no good to hear it until they're ready.

To me, this sounds a lot like what university is supposed to be. What I've noticed in the past couple years is that (at least for computer science) the public has managed to break through the walls and told us all how good we are. These days everyone is faced with the reality that their actions during their education directly affect their future. A student is robbed of their growth potential if they "sell out" too early. I think this happens a lot. How many great minds have we lost to high paying job offers? Probably a lot. Why take a chance on your own potential when you're being offered bags of money if you sign right now. This being the case, I've been trying to take time to explore paths that don't have an immediate pay off -- like writing for a bookclub on the internet.

Don't read this book. If you want something more accessible, this talk by DFW is much shorter while still tapping into the ideas of Infinite Jest: This Is Water.