7 Books You Could Read in the Time It Would Take You to Read ‘Infinite Jest’
They’re just as important, they add up to the same number of pages—and you’ll definitely have more fun doing it
Not too many years ago on a warm spring day, I got hit with an inspirational burst that led me to send a very important text message to friends: “You guys. I just thought of the best Halloween costume.” I wasn’t even going to tell them what the costume was yet because it was that good. But then I worried I would die in a freak accident before October and go to my grave with no one ever knowing how clever I was. So I texted again.
“Sexy David Foster Wallace!” I wrote.
To be clear, I’m not the sort of person who goes around planning Halloween costumes months in advance. I wore something I dubbed “punk rock lady bug” for about five years in a row because it required pulling a few accessories on over black clothes. Hours before a 2012 Halloween party, I scrambled to find a costume and went as Mitt Romney’s dressage horse, Rafalca. People didn’t know who I was even after I told them, “I’m Mitt Romney’s dressage hours, Rafalca.”
“Sexy David Foster Wallace,” on the other hand, was a success! It’s instantly funny because it brings bro-heavy literary posturing into the realm of sexy nurse or sexy teacher or sexy bunny or sexy dressage horse. High-brow! Low-brow! Medium laughs! (Plus, the costume required only round wire-frame glasses, a white bandana, an oversized flannel shirt and tights-as-pants, see photo—all of which I already owned.) It also required carrying around a copy of Wallace’s 1996 magnum opus, which was the hardest part. It is very heavy.
At 1,079 dense pages, including 388 footnotes (here, I must confess that I got these numbers from Wikipedia because I accidentally left my copy of the book at the party I wore the costume to the next year), Infinite Jest is, perhaps, one of the most controversial works in the so-called American canon of contemporary literature. Or at least it has become that.
Throughout the years, the tome has taken on an aura of assholery. It has fairly or unfairly (your call) become a kind of singular shorthand for the mostly white, mostly male, mostly blow-hardy canon of popular contemporary American literature. You kind of have to wonder at someone reading it, especially if they are reading it in public. No one reads it for pleasure. They read it because they think they should. Because they’re misguided about what “Important Literature” is. Or because they truly hate themselves. (Yes, there was a time when I, too, declared I would read it. That’s why I owned it. I got to page 340.)
But there’s good news! Most importantly, you don’t have to hate on David Foster Wallace—this post isn’t meant to either—to understand the problem that the book has come to represent. You just have to recognize three things: 1) that there are approximately one million other books worthy of your time, 2) that the experience of reading a “worthy” book doesn’t have to be painful, and 3) that you’re allowed to enjoy what you read.
In fact, you should enjoy what you read. The level to which you enjoy a book is not necessarily inversely proportional to its “worthiness,” though we seem to have been taught otherwise by generations of well-intentioned, if misguided, high school English teachers.
As such! I’ve put together a list of high-quality, highly enjoyable works that you could read in the same amount of time it would take you to read Infinite Jest—books that are also important in contemporary literature for different reasons.
My methodology was simple (and unscientific): Infinite Jest’s 1,079 pages are particularly dense, containing approximately 577,608 words or just over 535 words a page. Though word count-per-page varies widely depending on font, design, and physical size, I based my calculations on the premise that the average novel contains about 300 words per page. (Estimates often range from 250 to 350 words.) My recommendations on the list below are meant to add up to 1,925 pages. They’re actually 118 pages more than that, but I’m willing to posit it’s still an accurate assessment based on the automatically higher speed at which someone reads when they are reading something that is not Infinite Jest. And based on the logic that no one finishes IJ anyway.
So get those fingers ready to flip, and enjoy the books! No, like, really. That’s the whole point of reading.
FEVER DREAM by Samanta Schweblin—183 pages
The small, airy 183-pages of this book belie its intensity. A claustrophobic tale (formatted unconventionally for all you IJ wanna-reads), Fever Dream (Riverhead Books, 2017) is essentially a long, urgent conversation between a boy/possible demon named David and an unrelated woman named Amanda who has contracted a mysterious illness, perhaps from him, that has rendered her unable to move and likely to die within hours. In the urgently paced narrative, the boy seeks to learn “the important thing” — i.e., what it is that seems to be infecting everyone and everything around him — before it’s too late. The story is tense and scary and electrifying and dreamlike and psychological and wonderful all at the same time. Literary Bonus: The book was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize and called “genius” by The New Yorker; its author was named one of the best Spanish writers under 35 by Granta.
THE LAST SAMURAI by Helen DeWitt—482 pages
If it’s the appeal of erudition that draws you to IJ, you could do a lot worse than to read The Last Samurai. Originally published in 2000 by Miramax/Talk Books in England, where its author settled after studying classics and philosophy at Oxford University, Samurai was reissued in the U.S. by New Directions in 2016. Why did it take so many years for an American publisher to scoop it up? Perhaps it’s due to the book’s ambition and density. Perhaps it’s more prosaically due to the difficulty an American press has printing Japanese characters. Samurai follows a boy genius named Lupo who—in between learning Greek, Japanese, Hebrew, Old Norse, Inuit, and advanced mathematics and reading all 24 books of the Odyssey on the tube in London before he turns 6—is on a quest to determine which of the geniuses alive today could possibly be his biological father. His mother is also a genius, though maybe a bit crazy, too, and incessantly rewatches Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 epic Seven Samurai (from which the novel gets its title), often leaving Lupo to his own academic devices.
Is The Last Samurai challenging to read? Absolutely. Is it also highly rewarding and full of the heart (and recognizable storyline) that IJ seems to lack? Yup, it’s that, too. As for the intellectual chops of its author, multiple articles written upon Samurai’s reissue asked when it was that DeWitt’s genius as a novelist would finally be recognized, thereby recognizing that she was, in fact, a genius.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman—283 pages
Is it the promise of IJ’s absurdity that does it for you? Its satirical take on modern life? The idea that each person’s misery is not uniquely their own, but belongs to our soulless culture as a whole? Yes? Then try You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine (HarperCollins, 2015) on for size. The narrator, called A, lives with a roommate called B and has a boyfriend called C. She obsesses over what to eat and how to style herself and if she and her roommate are too alike or not alike enough and watches nonstop, soul-crushing television programs (very David Foster Wallace-y). Oh, another thing: A joins a dystopian cult. And during a hallucination (or is it?), the mascot of a purely chemical-composed snack called Kandy Kakes comes to life to haunt her. This book got a lot of praise when it came out—praise along the voice-of-the-Millennial-generation line, but I’m too tired to look up all the exact details, so just trust me.
Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi—324 pages
If I could recommend this book whenever I could, I would. Which means I often do. If you’ve read anything about the insanely prolific Helen Oyeyemi (seriously, she’s 35 and has six novels, two plays and one collection of short stories under her belt), you’ll know she’s a fan of fairytales and often repurposes them to tell modern stories with dreamlike qualities. In my humble opinion, Mr. Fox (Riverhead Books, 2011) is the wildest and best of her creations. (Please also note that I have not read all of her creations. I simply mean I love this book and find it to be even more magical than the others I have read.) The gist here is that a well-respected novelist named Mr. Fox has a muse who is the figment of his imagination called Mary Foxe. Early on in the novel, Mary confronts Mr. Fox because he can’t seem to stop killing off the female protagonists of his books. The truly great part? This occurs through “games” in which Mary seemingly enters Mr. Fox’s psyche, playing out different scenarios of how they could have met and how they’ve come to relate to each other as they do. None of it feels like schtick even as Oyeyemi masterfully plays with form and expectation.
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti—320 pages
As I write this, I realize I am sad because—once again!—I have apparently lent out my copy of How Should a Person Be? and not gotten it back (Henry Holt, 2012). I have purchased two copies already and am apparently going to buy a third. Maybe this should stop being a surprise to me: When you lend out a very good book there is a very good chance you will not get it back (even if you write your name inside the cover as I do). Heti’s autofiction masterpiece—is it a novel? is it autobiography? (I say novel)—kicked off a regular shit storm of literary gatekeepers’ griping when it came to the U.S. in 2012 from the author’s native Canada, where it was originally published in 2010. If I could flip through its pages right now for more details I would, but suffice it to say, the form is both experimental and traditional. It’s filled with humor that, perhaps, seems absurdist at first, but is actually real (as opposed to absurdly real) and nails its current time. It also continues to be beloved and hated and debated a decade after its original publication. If this is not an obvious sign that it’s a must-read, I don’t know what is and I cannot help you.
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli—190 pages
The Story of My Teeth (Coffee House Press, 2015) is the kind of book often referred to as a “romp,” but this one’s a literary romp. It’s more or less the story of a man named Gustavo Sanchez Sanchez, aka Highway, who begins his life unremarkably. Through a series of seemingly unrelated events, Highway becomes a traveling auctioneer. He sells off his own teeth one by one and few by few, by spinning exaggerated tales of their provenance—namely that they are actually the teeth of luminaries like Plato and Virginia Woolf and Rousseau. He ends up with a full set of chompers that were supposedly Marilyn Monroe’s, and Marilyn Monroe’s teeth become his for (most of) the rest of his life. There’s a lot more that goes on here in terms of experimental form and narrative. But maybe the best reveal is at the end, when we learn that the book was written as a sort of work commissioned by Jumex, a Mexican juice factory whose owners are massive art collectors, and incorporates many details of the lives of its factory workers—who communicate back and forth with Luiselli in recordings without ever meeting her. And for all those who love a Wallace-esque footnote, consider the 16-page meticulous timeline of Highway’s life and its surrounding years spanning from 1938 to 2013, compiled by the book’s translator, Christina McSweeney, your own personal treat.
I Love Dick by Chris Kraus—261 pages
The only annoying thing about reading Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick (Semiotext(e), 2006) especially when you are a woman, which I am, is that many people (many male people) feel very free to say things like “that looks like an interesting book” in a wink-y kind of voice whenever you read it in public. This is obviously in reaction to the book’s title. The book is called what it’s called because Dick is a real man named Dick that the real writer named Chris Kraus (and, to some degree,) her real husband named Sylvere Lotringer fell in love with in real life. Kraus then turned the ordeal into a novel in which a woman named Chris Kraus and her husband Sylvere Lotringer fall in love with a man named Dick. Yup.
One of the best parts of this novel is the fact that it was originally published in 1997, just a year after IJ, but unlike IJ, it has only grown in respect over the years, moving from cult classic to classic. Told mostly in letters, which are based on actual letters an obsessed Kraus wrote to the object of her affliction, the novel is experimental in the best way—a way that makes you question reality versus art and what it means to be a woman in either of those realms. Another best part: It was adapted into a 2016 Amazon original TV series starring Kathryn Hahn as the author and Kevin Bacon as the titular Dick.
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