Readers tackle an 'Infinite Summer' challenge

It's a bibliophile's version of beach reading: Take the summer to tackle "Infinite Jest," the acclaimed but daunting David Foster Wallace novel known for its inventive structure, its elastic style — and its 1,079 pages.

More than a decade after acquiring a reputation for being one of literature's lesser-read best-sellers, "Infinite Jest" is primed for a new moment in the sun. Thousands of readers started reading Sunday, after signing on to plunge into the novel.

More than 3,000 people have joined the virtual "Infinite Summer" book group through the social networking Web site Facebook, and some enthusiasts have set up their own online and face-to-face discussion forums.

The enthusiasm is, in part, a tribute to the author, who committed suicide last September at age 46 after struggling with severe depression for decades. Still, Infinite Summer's ringleaders say they are startled by the response.

"When I initially envisioned it, it was more of a spectator sport," said Matthew S. Baldwin, a Newcastle, Wash.-based freelance writer who conceived the project and is one of four "guides" who will regularly lead commentary at

Some participants are longtime "Infinite Jest" fans happy for an excuse to reread it ("Even better the second time. Three colors of highlighters. I am nerding OUT!" one wrote on the Web site Twitter). But many others are embracing the challenge to take on a book that has taunted them for years.

Colin Meloy, the frontman for the indie-rock band the Decemberists, has carted around a copy of the novel for so long that its sun-bleached spine is now illegible.

"It has traveled with me to every apartment, warehouse, duplex and house that I have lived in since 1998," Meloy wrote in an e-mail.

Though touring this summer, he aims to finish the book at Infinite Summer's 75-page-a-week pace.

Longer than "Ulysses" and "Moby-Dick," Wallace's 1996 book is ambitious in scope as well as size. It deals with topics as disparate as drugs, optics, tennis and Quebecois politics while examining people's drive to lose themselves — in entertainment, in addiction, in obsession, in "too much fun."

A few bloggers have publicly chronicled their progress through the book, and Wallace aficionados and scholars have group-read and debated it on fan sites and listservs for years. But Infinite Summer stands to expand such discussions to a considerably broader audience.

Organizers hope it will "put it back in the hands of real readers: thousands of them, in fact, on the same page at the same time," said Andrew Womack, of the online magazine The Morning News, which is sponsoring the June 21-Sept. 22 "endurance reading event."

Publisher Little, Brown played no role in devising the initiative but is cheering it from the sidelines, according to the company and Infinite Summer organizers.

"It's the kind of thing I always hoped could happen for 'Infinite Jest,'" said said Michael Pietsch, Wallace's longtime editor.


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