Infinite Summer, Finite Reason

Infinite Summer is a challenge to read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest over the summer of 2009. On their website, they say:

You’ve been meaning to do it for over a decade. Now join endurance bibliophiles from around the web as we tackle and comment upon David Foster Wallace’s masterwork, June 21st to September 22nd. A thousand pages1 ÷ 93 days = 75 pages a week. No sweat.

I’m quite interested to see how the challenge works, and exactly how it works as a communal exercise. Co-ordinated reading campaigns are old news, having been done on scales from book groups, to schools, to cities, to entire countries; putting them online (and in this case, on Twitter), and tackling a notoriously difficult book, is sure to attract note. I just don’t know how good an idea it is. I freely admit that this makes me sound like a curmudgeon (yes, a 26 year old curmudgeon).

I finished Infinite Jest a few months ago. In the foreword, David Eggers has this to say:

Let’s talk about age, the more pedestrian meaning of the word. It’s to be expected that the average age of the new Infinite Jest reader would be about twenty-five. There are certainly many collegians among you, probably, and there may be an equal number of thirty-year-olds or fifty-year-olds who have for whatever reason reached a point in their lives where they have determined themselves finally ready to tackle the book, which this or that friend has urged upon them. The point is that the average age is appropriate enough. I was twenty-five myself when I first read it…

…And thus I spent a month of my young life. I did little less. And I can’t say it was always a barrel of monkeys. It was occasionally trying. It demands your full attention. It can’t be read at a crowded cafe, or with a child on one’s lap…

…And yet the time spent in this book, in this world of language, is absolutely rewarded. When you exist these pages after that month of reading, you are a better person. It’s insane, but also hard to deny. Your brain is stronger because it’s been given a monthlong workout, and more importantly, your heart is sturdier, for there has scarcely been written a more moving account of desperation, depression, addiction, generational stasis and yearning, or the obsession with human expectations, with artistic and athletic and intellectual possibility.

When I read the foreword, two things crossed my mind. Firstly, I was vaguely disappointed (and then disappointed at being disappointed) at being a whole year older than Eggers’ average age of 25. It only reinforced my sad, gradual realisation that I am often no longer the youngest person in the room.

Secondly, I did the maths and figured that I could easily manage 33 pages a day, thus matching Eggers’ reading speed of a month. Given that I can read most books in a few hours, it seems that Infinite Jest, even with its complexity and innumerable footnotes, wouldn’t withstand my powers for long. At the very least, I thought, I could read 50 pages an evening, finishing the whole thing in little over three weeks.

It took me five weeks. Five weeks of hard, frustrating, and occasionally brilliantly illuminating work. Reading 33 pages a day was a real achievement.

Infinite Summer has a reading pace of 11 pages per day, with an apparent emphasis on chat. Much as I understand the sentiment behind this – not scaring off readers – I don’t think the project makes much sense. What is the point of Infinite Summer? Is it to get people to actually read the book? Or is it to get people to talk about reading the book? The prominent mention of the #infsum Twitter tag on the website makes it clear that chatter is a big part of this challenge. While this provides valuable encouragement and peer pressure to keep on reading, and of course I love any project that promotes reading, I can’t help but think that Twitter – or any other standard online discussion medium – may be counter-productive.

If I were taking part in Infinite Summer, there would be times where I would read far more than 11 pages in a day, and other times when I would read far less. Whatever my rate, I would always be at a different point in the book than pretty much everyone else; so what am I supposed to Twitter about, without spoiling the book for others, or being spoiled myself? And as I’m reading, am I thinking about the story and characters, or am I thinking about what I’m going to say online? There are ways to build discussion systems that can address these problems, and perhaps Infinite Summer will do that, but if it doesn’t, it’ll be a missed opportunity.

Eggers says that Infinite Jest demands full attention. It took him four weeks, it took me five weeks; it might take you four days or four months. It doesn’t matter how long it takes. What matters is that you get through it, because if you don’t, you’ll have left a great book unfinished. If a reading challenge helps you, that’s great. Perhaps it’s better if it’s read together. However, from my experience, when you’re reading Infinite Jest, you don’t want any distractions, and Infinite Summer may be just that.

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