Warning: The endeavor on which you are about to embark is not for the faint of heart.
Even if you’ve never read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, you’re probably aware of its reputation as a rather demanding book. It’s true; this is a book that asks a lot from its reader. It requires a lot of your concentration and a big time commitment, to say nothing of the physical burden of carrying around a 1,100+ page novel. Such an undertaking requires chutzpah, intellect, persistence and perseverance. And one other thing: it requires faith.
When we put our faith in a text, and the text yields wisdom, guidance, and comfort in return, that text becomes sacred. It may seem strange to regard secular, fictional texts as sacred. But for us non-religious literature lovers, our favorite novels are the closest things we have to gospel. I know I’m not the first to semi-jokingly call Infinite Jest my “bible,” or refer to reading it as a “religious experience.”
Infinite Jest is a book concerned with big questions. What does it mean to be an American in the 21st century? How do we connect with other people when the rapidly-advancing technology intended to bring us closer keeps driving us further apart? And where, in this increasingly secular world, do we put our faith? One of the characters in Infinite Jest tells us that everyone worships. Whether we know it or not, we all put our faith in something, and by doing so, anoint it as sacred. Wallace argues in the pages of IJ that the tendency to worship, to ritualize our devotion to something and surrender to it, is an unavoidable part of our human nature. The trouble’s in the choosing. Remy Marathe tells us we must choose very carefully, consciously and deliberately that in which we put our faith, for it will come to define us.
Vanessa Zoltan of the Harvard Divinity School made a Master’s thesis of this choice. She took her favorite book, Jane Eyre, and applied to it sacred reading practices from various faiths in order to mine it for meaning that could be applied to her own life. Teaming with Casper Ter Kuile, Zoltan’s next choice of secular text to turn sacred was the Harry Potter series. First in the form of an in-person reading group, and now on their podcast Harry Potter & the Sacred Text, Zoltan and Ter Kuile unpack the books chapter-by-chapter using sacred reading practices like Lectio Divina and Havruta (from the Christian and Jewish traditions respectively) to seek insight from the well-loved works of fiction.
So what would happen if we treated Infinite Jest as a sacred text? What wisdom could we extract and apply to our lives today? I don’t think Wallace intended his masterpiece as an instructive and erudite guide to life, but what could we learn by treating it as such? Would Wallace feel comfortable with us searching his novel for enlightenment? Maybe not. In fact, probably not. He would likely find it a bit cringe-worthy if he were here to see it.
But he isn’t here.
And I wish he were.
Wallace’s voice, more than that of any other writer, makes me feel sane. And in 2017, when America seems even more surreal and farcical than the future-America predicted in the pages of Infinite Jest, I wish he were still here, still writing, still helping us make sense of the increasingly nonsensical world in which we live. We’ll never know what Wallace would’ve written in response to the crooked lines dividing us today. So I’m putting my faith in Infinite Jest. By reading it and writing about it with rigor and ritual, and by discussing it in community with you, I believe it will illuminate the dark, uncertain future we all navigate today. So join me, won’t you?
Infinite Jest is not broken up into traditional numbered chapters. We will follow the tried and true reading schedule used by the IJ reading groups that have come before us, approximately 75-100 pages a week (not including the endnotes.) As inspired by the Harry Potter & the Sacred Text project, we will read each weekly section through the lens of a particular theme that will ground us in the text. My fellow guides and I will post every week with our thoughts on each section using sacred reading practices. We’ve created a subreddit to accompany this site, and that’s where you come in. I hope the conversations that happen there will be a lively and vibrant meeting of the minds. I look forward to hearing your thoughts, theories, realizations and revelations.
We will commence our discussion on January 30 with pages 1-63 which we will read through the theme of self-expression. See you then!