Infinite WTF
December 11, 2012 3:18 PM   Subscribe

Personal recommendations for a reader's companion to Infinite Jest?

I've actually never read with a companion guide, but my mother has purchased Infinite Jest for my sister for Christmas and I'd like to give her a better shot at getting through it than my own attempt, which was #fail. (Please don't make me give up my MeFi membership.)

I found this, but I'd like MeFi's recommendation.
posted by DarlingBri to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
In 2009 I read Infinite Jest with a lot of other people, during the Infinite Summer. The website of the communal experience is stilll online. Including a forum with sometimes very detailled discussions.

I recommend that site above any book, because of the many different voices on the same book.
posted by ijsbrand at 3:30 PM on December 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

The Burn companion is very good, but it has some spoiler problems and it's truly obsessively hyper-detailed in a way that might not be congenial for casual reading. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it for a gift purchase or a first reading outside a graduate seminar (or unless the recipient is a graduate-seminar kind of reader). Basically, as long as it's okay to miss stuff, it's probably more fun to read the book without it the first time. You can always buy the companion for her second reading.
posted by RogerB at 3:52 PM on December 11, 2012

Agree with RogerB. I love IJ, but in my opinion the first time you read it you should accept the fact that you're going to be disoriented and confused and miss a lot -- and not fight that. Just keep moving because it will make more and more sense as you go along. I actually skipped some of the footnotes the first time I read it, which is totally antithetical to authorial intent, but it did help me get to the end. And of course I did later go back and re-read it carefully, as intended. Actually I've read it several times now.

Other tips: it's a great e-reader book (not nearly as unwieldy as the print book, plus the footnotes are hyperlinked, which makes them easier to deal with). Or, if you're not an eBook person, get the paperback and tear it into thirds so you can carry it around with you, hold it up in front of you in bed, etc.
posted by pocketfullofrye at 4:12 PM on December 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm not concerned about a second reading at this juncture. I am looking for a reference to encourage her to get through a 1st reading. I sort of suspected the Burns was more of a seminar thing but Elegant Complexity looks like a good option.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:17 PM on December 11, 2012

I know this is challenging the premise of the question, but I think DFW very much intended people to be confused as they went. I think it would be boring to have some things explained prematurely, and might actually thwart enjoyment she'd have otherwise had.
posted by phrontist at 4:22 PM on December 11, 2012

A character map? Looks like you can't order prints anymore, but you could download the pdf and have it printed nicely for her.
posted by ecsh at 4:29 PM on December 11, 2012

This very short Tumblr post is the best introduction to Infinite Jest I've ever read. It includes a link to a useful vocabulary list, too.
posted by FrauMaschine at 6:31 PM on December 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ah, the other thing, if she's going to read a physical copy, is that multiple bookmarks are helpful: one for the main text, one for the footnotes, and one the page explaining the sequence of years in subsidized time (1, 2). So you could get her a set of three nice bookmarks.

The intro/vocab link above has some other good meta-information that can provide some light organizational assistance without dragging her into 'graduate seminar' style dialogue.
posted by ecsh at 7:14 PM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I second Infinite Summer as a good occasional reference. If it were me, I would hesitate to give your sister another whole book to read alongside Infinite Jest, even if it's to help understand, because having the one book with its footnotes to carry around is daunting enough. Sam Potts's map is a lot of fun (so much so that I got it for my boyfriend as a present after we finished reading the book) but I don't think it really does a lot as a guide.

For what it's worth, I read IJ with 2 bookmarks, and I interspersed my reading with various other less complex books. (It took me a few months in all.) For me, the most helpful thing was having my boyfriend read the book at the same time; should you think of trying again, a sort of book club is probably the best gift...
posted by mlle valentine at 8:31 PM on December 11, 2012

Response by poster: I'm going to pass on all of these bookmarks in a post-Christmas email, but since you can't really unwrap an email (helpful though it may be!) that's maybe not a great gift per se. I'm going with Elegant Complexity, and even better a lovely MeFite got in touch with the offer to send on a spare copy. I'm calling this kismet.

My sisters, mother and I all read The Night Circus this year and that was fun. However, there will be no book club reading of Infinite Jest. I barely survived my first failed attempt, and I don't think you could pay me to try again. A part of my brain is permanently trapped in a tennis academy as it is, trying to figure out where the fuck I am and more importantly, how to get the hell out of here.

I know: I am a bad MeFite because I do not share the love for DFW. I admire all of you and do not begrudge you your love. Thank you!
posted by DarlingBri at 10:31 PM on December 11, 2012

I hope this isn't unhelpful but I have to say that when I read IJ about the last thing on earth I wanted was more text.
posted by Segundus at 1:30 AM on December 12, 2012

I read the new version of the Burns companion after successfully reading the book for the first time (after a few failed attempts). the first section is good but later sections setting the book in the wider context of other american novels felt like it was written for a more academic audience and was not that helpful. I would not describe it as "hyperdetailed/obsessive" in any way - but it is definatley not that accessible for a general reader because it seems to assume alot of knowledge of other literature and the wider ouvre of DFW. It is written with spoilers so it is not a good thing to read along with it.

I second the e-reader recommendation - Not having to deal with bookmarks,tiny text (in every edition) and constant page flipping made it much easier to handle, aswell as ensuring you don't lose your place. (not that this is that helpful given the context of the question - but if she is struggling with the paper copy then you could transition her to the ebook).

Not that it is very good as a present - but I found the Infinite Jest Wiki page-by-page annotations very usefull, probably the most helpful thing when reading the book!
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 4:58 AM on December 12, 2012

A really good dictionary. I'm not even kidding. The best thing about reading it on my phone, in the Kindle app (there were many obvious BAD things that I'll not belabor here) was the ability to tap a word and have the definition appear. Usually.

No matter who you are there are some words in there you don't know, or words that you sort of know, and usually those 50 point words are used specifically because DFW is trying to say something that only that specific word can say. Almost like another layer of footnotes, these very particular and sometimes very technical words give shadings to what is being said that you don't quite get if you just surmise the definition from context.

Gosh that book is a beautiful brute.

But, as it sounds like there's a paper version of the book already under the tree, how about an electronic dictionary? $30 gets you 500,000 words. That might be a handy thing to have on one's nightstand while reading Infinite Jest, and also is sort of a funny joke insomuch as it sort of says, "well, good luck".
posted by dirtdirt at 8:44 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Biased here because I am the editor & publisher of Elegant Complexity, but I just wanted to point out that it's based on the format of Blamire's guide to Ulysses - The Bloomsday Book. There are summaries of each chapter/section of IJ, analysis of themes and characters, and some charts at the end (also the back cover of the book includes a map of Enfield Tennis Academy). Burn's book is also good. One that I don't recommend is this one by Dowling & Bell. Not everyone needs or likes reader's guides when they read novels, but I get why others like to spend time with them, make a study project out of the whole experience.
posted by mattbucher at 8:45 AM on December 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

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