I really enjoyed reading this Maria Bustillos piece on David Foster Wallace’s heavily annotated collection of self-help books.
One surprise was the number of popular self-help books in the collection, and the care and attention with which he read and reread them. I mean stuff of the best-sellingest, Oprah-level cheesiness and la-la reputation was to be found in Wallace’s library. Along with all the Wittgenstein, Husserl and Borges, he read John Bradshaw, Willard Beecher, Neil Fiore, Andrew Weil, M. Scott Peck and Alice Miller. Carefully.
I haven’t read Infinite Jest since Wallace killed himself in 2008. Part of it is that I just don’t have the time, but part of it is a fear that the book just doesn’t work anymore. It’s one thing for the protagonist to become incomprehensible to everyone but himself, but quite another for him to take his own life.
I don’t know what I would make of the book today. It’s probably been twelve years since I plodded my way through it (and don’t kid yourself, as enjoyable as the book is, it is hard work to get through it). Hal Incandenza was clearly modeled on Wallace himself, which only becomes more clear as more of Wallace’s inner life is revealed by his highlighting and annotating of these self-help books. Knowing that Hal ultimately kills himself must now weigh heavily on any reading of the book, changing the meaning, possibly fatally. Knowing that The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House and all the 12-step programs in the world couldn’t save Incandenza’s life must tarnish and cast doubt on one of Wallace’s central purposes in writing the book.
I don’t know. I’d like to read it again and see what’s different. For starters, I’m different. I’m older; I’m a parent. Of course, it’s because I’m a parent that I will probably have to wait twenty years to take up Infinite Jest again. It’s still the most impressive book I’ve read written originally in the English language.