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Infinite Jest Revisited

The 1996 book by David Foster Wallace saw the Internet explosion, and its effects, approaching fast

David Foster Wallace was 34 when his magnum opus Infinite Jest appeared in 1996. He tragically took his life in 2008, but the title he’s known for best remains an awe-inspiring, controversial tome.

UnHerd writer Sarah Ditum wrote a great review revisiting the book in which she writes, “He did not see the future. But he saw the forces shaping the future, and understood the ways they would deform people in turn.”

Infinite Jest, a 1,000 plus page book with 200 pages of tedious endnotes to boot, imagines an American context not so foreign from our own where entertainment has become so powerful that it hopelessly addicts everyone who encounters it. The Internet was already budding in ’96, but the inevitable effects were still yet to be tasted. Ditum writes,

One of Wallace’s influences, Thomas Pynchon, wrote stories about the technology that made America possible: geographical surveys (Mason Dixon), the postal service (The Crying of Lot 49). Infinite Jest is about the technology that could undo a state: a kind of entertainment so compelling that it turns consumers utterly away from reality. It asks whether the real, or something like it, might be worth recovering. 

-Sarah Ditum, Did David Foster Wallace predict the future? – UnHerd

If Aldous Huxley were born a few decades later, he and Wallace probably would have exchanged numbers. I read Infinite Jest in college as a part of a philosophy class, where every Thursday morning, my classmates and I would turn in our phones at the door and read dense and frustrating brilliance for five hours straight. I’m not sure I would have gotten through it otherwise, but there are still highlighted passages I return to over and over. The book, which Ditum notes almost resembles the Internet itself by its sheer physicality and cross-referenced madness, indeed anticipated the deluge of online addiction that exploded not so long after its release.

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories and has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and is the Writer and Editor for Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture.

Infinite Jest Revisited