“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.

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Days of Future Past: Augmented Reality and Temporality in Digital Public Humanities

Uncanny X-Men #141 (1981 [1980])
In July 2017, I presented a version of this talk on a panel on “Temporality” at the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference (#keydh on Twitter) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The project  I discuss here, a digital tour of the Nightingale-Brown House, will debut in September 2017. I’ll update this post with a direct link when we go live!

I wanted to start by outlining three of the major questions I hope to raise in this discussion of a digital house tour I’ve been working on at Brown University’s Public Humanities program. This presentation will focus on the details of our particular project, but I hope this overview is useful to people who are specifically interested in the metaphor of the tour in DH as well as anyone who might have thoughts on temporality as it relates to DH work and the interfaces we rely on (or develop) in various initiatives.

Excerpts from Uncanny X-Men #141-142 (1981 [1980])
This talk takes its title from “Days of Future Past,” a 1980 storyline from Marvel Comics’ Uncanny X-Men serial in which a member of the superhero team travels back in time to stop the bleak future she calls home from existing in the first place. “Welcome to the 21st century,” reads a caption box on the opening splash page of #141. Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and their collaborators present readers with a dystopian vision of 2013 and a ragtag team of surviving heroes so desperate that they’re “toying with the basic fabric of reality” in an attempt to travel back in time to literally rewrite history.

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“Our City”: Images of Home in Our Marathon, The Boston Bombing Digital Archive

Source: Our Marathon
Source: Our Marathon

Note: The following post is adapted from remarks I gave at the 2016 American Studies Association Conference on a panel titled “Home Screens: Digitizing Belonging and Place in American Studies.” Thanks to my fellow presenters and attendees for their participation, to Alicia Peaker and the rest of the Our Marathon project team, and to Carrie Johnston for organizing the panel.

In his remarks at an interfaith prayer service in Boston on April 18th, 2013, three days after the Boston Marathon bombings, President Barack Obama noted more than once to his audience that “Boston may be your hometown, but we claim it, too.” In the hours, days, and weeks following the events of April 15th, 2013, many people used social media to document how “at home” they feel or once felt in Boston.

I’m interested in ideas of home and digital spaces in the context of Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive. Our Marathon, a community project hosted by Northeastern University, is a crowdsourced digital archive of close to ten thousand stories, photos, and social media about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and their aftermath. I started working on it as a graduate student research assistant in May of 2013, became Project Co-Director (with Alicia Peaker, now at Bryn Mawr) in the fall of that year, and I continue to work on it as we preserve our digital assets and make them more accessible in the short and long-term via Northeastern’s Digital Repository Service.

Slide by Jim McGrath
Slide by Jim McGrath

I’m particularly interested in discussing Our Marathon and what it might tell us about home and digital regionalismhome and digital archives, and home and digital public humanities.

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