“I am in here”: Reflections on Reading Infinite Jest on Kindles, Trains, and Airplanes

I presented this paper at the Second Annual David Foster Wallace Conference back in 2015. The paper was NOT well received by some members of the audience, mainly because I was suggesting that reading a digital edition of Infinite Jest wasn’t the end of the world. During the Q&A, one person said something like “If David Foster Wallace were here today, he’d say you were wrong.” It was amazing. There were some nice people there as well, but I’ll always remember that comment and the glares some people in the audience gave me. All in all this conference was not my particular cup of tea, but a good friend asked me to tag along with him on a panel and I’d never been to a conference dedicated to a single author before, so it was worth the experience. After our panel was done, we spent most of the remainder of the conference down the block, playing darts at an Irish bar. Thanks again for the good times, Ben. I’ve always liked this piece so I’m posting it here.


Cover to Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

I finished reading Infinite Jest for the first time on Thursday, December 29 2011, somewhere between 30,000 and 45,000 feet above sea level. I did not expect to finish the book on Spirit Airlines Flight 126 from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to Boston, Massachusetts, wedged in the sky, returning to my Allston apartment after a long Christmas vacation with my retired parents and my occasionally employed brothers. Though I had spent many reading sessions flipping back and forth between the hyperlinked “Notes and Errata” and the book’s main text on my second-generation Amazon Kindle, I had misjudged how much space the novel’s “appendix” took up, and felt there was more to read. The ending, its image of Gately “flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand,” seemed abrupt, a quiet moment following one of the more grotesque sequences in the novel. I was not prepared to conclude on this particularly off-putting note, trapped in the sky in an uncomfortable seat aboard one of the worst airlines in the history of airlines, unable to talk, or text, or tweet about how it felt to finish a book that had held my attention over most of the last seven months.

This paper uses my particular experiences reading Infinite Jest to examine the public and social dimensions of reading and the ways digital media – specifically, ebooks – color those dimensions. My decision to read an ebook version of Infinite Jest was in part determined by my sense of where and how I planned to read it: primarily in transit, mainly in and around a Boston both familiar and removed from the city described in the novel. I was conscious of a variety of factors while reading Infinite Jest: the logistics of reading such a large book in close quarters on overcrowded rush hour Green Line trains, the clichéd image of young, white men reading Serious Literature in public spaces, the desire to remain anonymous while inhabiting two Allstons at once.

I bought a digital edition of Infinite Jest on May 21, 2011. I was between two depressing semesters of graduate school, where I was studying (or, more specifically, not studying) contemporary American poetry, and I figured that a detour into contemporary American fiction would be a nice change of pace. Contemporary American fiction and I had decided to see other people a few years prior to this decision; it was hard at the time to not judge the entirety of the field by the poor reading choices I had made in my early 20s: the copies of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius on my bookshelf were more embarrassing to me than the copies of Limp Bizkit’s Significant Other and Sugar Ray’s 14:59 that were in the CD folders under my bed. With my Kindle, I was free to make ill-advised forays into all sorts of literary genres without anyone being the wiser.

I received an international version of the “Kindle 2” as a gift from my parents on November 11, 2009. They had imagined my tendency to cram close to a dozen books into my bags on weekend trips back to the city (sorry, New York City: specifically Brooklyn) less as a symptom particular to graduate student life and more as a continuation of old habits: as a kid, I was not able to go to the beach, much less a restaurant a short drive away in our neighborhood, without packing the car with various copies of Nintendo Power and Wizard: The Guide to Comics. They also knew that I had a tendency to leave (or flee) neighborhoods in the Boston and Cambridge areas after a year or two, and they imagined a Kindle as a lighter, easier-to-pack alternative. I was not consulted on this purchase, but it made me happy despite my monetary and emotional investments in the independent bookstores of Boston and Cambridge.

In lieu of a touchscreen interface, the Kindle 2 featured a built-in keyboard and buttons on either side of the device that let readers move to “Previous Pages” or “Next Pages” or a basic menu. It was hard to read in the sun, the e-Ink technology sometimes misbehaved, and in order to use, say, the hyperlinked footnotes littering the digital edition of Infinite Jest, a reader had to click through various characters on the displayed page and hope that the edition had been properly encoded so that you ended up at the appropriate note and/or piece of errata. Kindle 2s could bring readers easily (and sometimes unexpectedly) to the furthest page read in a digital edition, but good luck finding your way back. This was a feature that was useful when losing one’s place in a Stieg Larsson novel but infuriating when the furthest page read was a long ways from the central narrative of Wallace’s novel. Rather than an easy hop, skip, and a jump back and forth between narrative and notes, the decision to click on an Infinite Jest footnote became an occasional headache. Later generations of Kindles attend to many of these problems, but Kindles continue to present other sorts of problems to certain readers: for example, the proprietary format of its files requires Amazon-supported apps, so the easy-to-manage library of digital books you began compiling is married to particular reading contexts and their attendant costs.

There are also the challenges of annotation and highlighting on a Kindle device, issues that are not necessarily exclusive to this technology but which seem to plague all e-readers and their human readers. We all know how very proud readers of Infinite Jest are of their heavily-annotated editions, with their marginalia, color-coded Post-It notes, highlighted sections, and whatnot. Pictures of these sorts of editions are displayed proudly across the web, documents of the labor of reading and more reading and writing and maybe some doodling, and I’m sure there are some food or coffee stains, and even some moments of private correspondence, like evidence of misguided attempts to gift this mountain of a novel to unsuspecting loved ones.

About a month before my purchase of Infinite Jest, the Boston Phoenix had run a story on “People Holding Infinite Jest,” a Tumblr page (that is gone, save the traces left of it on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine) run by Somerville resident Chris Braiotta. Braiotta had found a digital treasure trove of various people posing with copies of the novel on the photo-sharing site Flickr, and he had made it his mission to publicly shame “people who think they’re too smart to go to Sizzler” who were using the book as a kind of “lifestyle marker.” Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville residents have complicated feelings about cultural artifacts – books, articles of clothing, beer – and what they tell us about a person’s affiliations with particular communities in the region. We have strong feelings about many dumb things, from Narragansett tall boys to Yankees hats to David Foster Wallace novels. Reading Infinite Jest on the 66 bus line from Harvard Square to Allston seems, to some of the area’s more vigilant and obnoxious watchdogs, like a move that screamed “outsider” through its claims for insider knowledge.

It must be exhausting to go through life having to worry about people who judge how we choose to focus our attention between destinations, combing the web for documentation of perceived transgressions. I suppose you could wait until you’ve reached your destination, but reading choices in coffee shops, bars, and Chipotle restaurants force us to navigate additional social minefields: the Chris Braioittas of the world are out there, eating and caffeinating and rolling their eyes at nearby tables. And I’ll be honest: there is something fairly ridiculous to me about the sight of a person reading Infinite Jest in its hardcover or paperback formats on public transportation. It’s not a book that is optimized for use on B Line trains full of hungover law school students and terrified families of Red Sox fans. A degree of annotation seems possible, but not of the color-coded, sticker-infused variety. In addition to having an edition that called little attention to itself, a Kindle edition made it possible to read Infinite Jest in a wide range of commuter scenarios and mobile contexts.

Beyond the fears of sociopaths and the detours into self-consciousness, I do wonder more seriously about the kinds of reading experiences afforded by digital remediations of Infinite Jest, and how the mediated dimensions of these particular occasions of reading are part of a larger continuum of technologies of texts. Wallace is interested in technological interfaces and the ways they anticipate or encourage certain consumer practices and social habits. For example, the novel’s detailed description of the history of the “Transmittable Tableaux” (or TT) highlights the adoption and rejection of the “unreal stylized” interface, an expensive mode of curated and heavily mediated communication that became “a kind of status symbol of anti-vanity, such that only callers utterly lacking in self-awareness continued to use videophony,” favored by users who revealed themselves as “ironic cultural symbols of tacky vain slavery to corporate PR and high-tech novelty” during the Subsidized Era. Elsewhere, Wallace’s narrator describes the placement of “modems” in dormitories at Enfield Tennis Academy, noting that “only E.T.A. juniors and seniors get to have actual cartridge-viewers in their subdorm rooms,” and that “none of these viewers…can have motherboard cards for Spontaneous Interlace Disseminations or for ROM-caliber games.” And then there’s Marlon Bain, one of Orin Incandenza’s E.T.A. classmates who, were are told, is not “InterNetted and has an O.C.D.-phobic thing about e-mail.” There are other interesting references: the “computerized jewelry” described with disdain by the narrator on the ears of the Commonwealth’s yuppie incursion, the now-dated “old-computer-enhanced celluloid dinosaur things” of “old Spielberg’s” Jurassic Park.

The imagined and real technology inventoried in Infinite Jest is often made explicit and visible, in ways that suggest Wallace in interested in more than just providing clarity and context for his invented devices. In 2000’s Remediation: Understanding New Media, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin argue that “the logic of immediacy dictates that the medium itself should disappear and leave us in the presence of the thing represented: sitting in the race car or standing on the mountaintop.” The dream of virtual reality, for example, is “to foster in the viewer a sense of presence: the viewer should forget that she is in fact wearing a computer interface and accept the graphic image that it offers as her own visual world.” The excitement surrounding the Oculus Rift, a more recent attempt to make the dream of VR a reality, is fueled in large part by the device’s supposed ability to remove traces of the nausea that has plagued many VR interfaces in the past. There is lots of money at stake in perfecting what Lori Emerson, in 2014’s Reading Writing Interfaces, describes as “the wonders of invisible interfaces and how they provide us with a more natural, more direct, inherently better way to interact with our computers.” Wallace calls attention to the magic trick being performed in these instances through his tour of clunky and limited interfaces.

This conference room is filled with devices and technological innovations whose interface quirks and particularities have been rendered “invisible” or “natural” to us. Here I’m talking less about the phones and laptops and Kindles and more about the unlined pieces of paper you might be taking notes on, or the books on which the corpus of Infinite Jest is printed in an unnamed font behind a cover designed by Keith Hayes. Or maybe I’m talking about the tendency to favor a perspective of “augmented reality” rather than a world met one interface at a time. Or maybe it’s the collection of digital avatars we deploy as digital ambassadors in various social networks when we don’t have time to assume the roles required for these particular performances. Or maybe it’s just this branded podium and attendant microphone and the formal layout of this conference and its peculiar investments in a kind of old-fashioned, PowerPointless mode of public speaking and direct engagement with ideas.

The size of paperback or hardcover editions of Infinite Jest reveals the novel as its own kind of clunky, unwieldy interface, one that, judging from Wallace’s interest in the technologies of popular forms of media, seems playfully designed as a kind of untransmittable tableau of text. And the decision to divide a reader’s attention between what seems recognizable by publication conventions as a “central” or “primary” narrative and what he tells Charlie Rose in an interview is the “addictive” second voice of the Notes and Errata seems done less for the convenience of the reader of this brick of bound paper and more to divert his or her attention. “Text is very linear, it’s very unified,” Wallace tells Rose, and the investment in getting readers to repeat a familiar mechanical gesture of reading ad nauseam disrupts this unity.

Kindles and the hyperlinked dimensions of ebooks designed for such interfaces might arguably unify the text. When I purchased my first physical copy of Infinite Jest in O’Hare Airport a few days ago, I was surprised by both the absence of a Table of Contents and the change in font size in the Notes & Errata section of the novel, bibliographic resonances overwritten and obscured by the imperatives of ebook designers and publishers invested in certain ideas of User Interface. But there is also the potential to further fracture the text and open up new approaches to reading the novel in digital editions. A quick Google search for “Infinite Jest” revealed a messy but nonetheless usable corpus of the novel’s text scraped from what appears to be a Kindle or ebook edition (given the presence of the Table of Contents) and placed into a crude but searchable PDF file. Such an edition allows me to search particular words or phrases in the text via two keyboard strokes (what a gross word), giving me rough estimates on the number of times words appear in the text: “cartridge” (313), “Internet” (7), “network” (43), “e-mail” (8), “Digital” (71).

“How do trite things get to be trite? Why is the truth usually not just un- but anti-interesting?” This sentiment, from the imagined thoughts of Gately on Alcoholics Anonymous and its “banal” epiphanies, is one of the few moments (thirty-two in total) highlighted in my Kindle edition of Infinite Jest. I’d like to bring it into conversation with Wallace’s thoughts on TV as they appear in conversation with Charlie Rose. Wallace, as has been widely reported and dramatized in film, loved television, but he also notes that “television is so darn easy: you sit there, and you don’t have to do much.” Television viewing practices have changed with recent technological developments and interfaces like Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, and other services. The inherent triteness of television as a delivery device of advertising interspersed with narrative is disrupted in certain contexts by content providers: no longer dependent on the narrative beats and breaks of commercials and the investments in air placed by particular companies, showrunners and producers often claim to have a wider degree of flexibility within the current parameters outlined by their current investors. But in many respects the interfaces of these enterprises and their attendant algorithms and features require users to do less with more, at the level of mechanical labor. A universal remote can be easily replaced by a controller with three or four buttons and a directional pad.

Similarly, a Kindle doesn’t ask you for much: in fact, it doesn’t want much, though it thinks it would be nice if you occasionally broadcast excerpts from your purchases with consumer commentary on social media. The Kindle affords me certain benefits that appeal to me on a functional and spiritual level: I can easily hide in plain sight with Wallace on the T. But the particular formatting decisions it supports and the occasions for readings it fosters may encourage the kind of passivity many readers of Wallace seem to explicitly reject in their relentless tagging and marking up of their editions. There are certainly performative dimensions to these annotative practices (even if the performance is given to a solitary audience), but there also seems to be a desire to pursue a different mode of reading in these activities.

I’ll end with some questions. What will future digital editions of Infinite Jest look like? How will they solidify certain assumptions generated from older technologies of text, or how might they take advantage of newer tools, allowing users like me to engage with other readers from my newly-wifi-enabled perch in the sky on future Spirit Airlines flights? How far have your editions of Wallace’s work traveled, and what are the advantages of inventorying and potentially remapping our reading interfaces and the mechanics of our annotative practices, our crude and sleek attempts at psychogeography? How is the reading of digital editions trite, interesting, un-interesting, anti-interesting?

Questions? Comments? Feel free to email me (james_mcgrath@brown.edu) or find me on Twitter @JimMc_Grath.

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