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I fell in love with David Foster Wallace when I was a senior in high school, under the influence of a favorite high school English teacher. This teacher had been trying to tackle Infinite Jest for a while, and he spoke about it with such anxiety yet reverence and respect that it made me desperate to see what he saw; to be part of this elite literary circle. Although my introduction to DFW began with his commencement address, “This is Water,” significant Internet research quickly informed me that this speech did not appropriately characterize the DFW his friends and family knew too well. DFW struggled his entire life with depression, and in a particularly generous view of his escape from earth, he died trying to use literature as a medium through which he could eradicate for others the loneliness that weighed heavy on his heart. He was deeply self-conscious, witty but cheeky as well. He was difficult. But he was also a lovable genius. My anxiety over getting him “right”—over understanding this literary and human idol of mine, whom I never got to meet—has only grown with every new thing I have ever learned about him.
DFW grew up in Champaign, IL, where my parents went to college and met one another. It’s a city I am mildly familiar with—mostly through stories. He was raised the son of two professors; his mother was a notorious “grammar Nazi.” He had a sister as well, Amy, whose anger over his 2008 suicide is one of the saddest forms of grief I’ve ever read about. He loved dogs. He described himself as somewhat of a tennis prodigy, but many have come forward to assure the world that his tennis prowess was overstated. Although DFW was originally inclined toward physics, he stumbled upon fiction like a bird stumbles upon flying—cautiously and awkwardly at first, and then falling into grace.
Wallace struggled intensely with depression and addiction his entire adult life, and ultimately, unable to take the hum any longer, he ended his life. What he managed to accomplish in his time on earth can only leave us heartbroken that he is no longer around to offer us more. The attempt to memorialize him appropriately—to avoid painting him as St. David and to avoid equally carefully damning him for going too soon—is a difficulty I am fortunate to exist only at the perimeter of. I have always felt remiss that I was never able to meet Wallace, and have felt in particularly odd nights as if I miss him; his brain; his genius. I think perhaps this is the greatest gift of literature: the way you become connected to this author for being able to articulate what you have only been able to feel.
Initially, I was drawn to DFW the moral preacher (the DFW of “This is Water” fame). I then became engrossed in DFW the legend, and then that broke down into DFW the human and the author. He transformed, as I matured, from the man in the bandana into a living, fleshy human being, with flaws and triumphs. The biggest and most important takeaway I have gained from my David Foster Wallace fandom, though, is a powerful resistance to the romanticization of depression and suicide. These ideas, which I found somewhat beautiful because I found them consistent with great artistic genius in high school, have through my obsession with DFW come to represent the most hideous demons a person can struggle with. He showed me, inadvertently, what true depression looks like—not interesting or beautiful suffering, but rather, a monstrous disease that eats you from the inside out. I think he made depression become real for me. And he made addiction come real for me. And he made consumerism and the lonely interior a consumerist façade obscures come real for me. He made evil come real for me. He exposed what was hiding in plain view, and so unapologetically. I hope to collect many more of the books on my list in the coming years, which are largely works by his hundreds of heroes and influences, but in the meantime, I feel my collection has empowered me in my quest to truly understand the man who was hiding behind the bandana.
1) Norris, Frank. McTeague. New York: Penguin, 1981. Print.
I got this book my junior year of college in browsing in a used bookstore outside of the Philly restaurant I was trying to get into for my 21st birthday. It’s an old, beat-up, paperback copy, which is the type of copy I imagine Wallace reading. Wallace read McTeague in an American novel course he took as an undergraduate at Amherst. It stood out to him on the syllabus because, in D.T. Max’s words, “Norris’s novel showed him how much room there was for the bizarre in fiction, even in supposedly realist works.” Wallace was driven to postmodernism, such as Pynchon’s, but he was also on a lifelong mission to make his fiction accessible. He believed fiction was supposed to be an apparatus for connection; he believed its mission was to eradicate or reduce loneliness, and pure postmodernism could not speak through to people’s souls any more than straight realism could capture the confusion of reality.
2) DeLillo, Don. Nine Stories. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. Print.
I found this paperback copy, bent and folded, fallen behind a bench in a used bookstore that gave it to me for half price due to its dusty condition. I want to find and read some of DeLillo’s novels, but I was able to get a sense of his voice from these stories. It is widely considered the second largest influence on Wallace’s college writing (after Pynchon, whose novels I also intend to hunt down). Although Pynchon taught Wallace more about postmodern structure, DeLillo is credited with inspiring the “flat, echoing tone of his dialogue” (D.T. Max).
3) Mailer, Norman. The Armies of the Night. New York: The New American Library, 1968. Print.
I found an old, black, worn, hardcover copy of this novel my sophomore year in a used bookstore and record shop in the loop in Chicago. The shop was closing down, and I got the book for 50 cents, which Wallace would frankly have considered too great a price. He loathed Armies of the Night. He read it after tearing the ligature in his ankle during a softball game, an injury for which his recent battle with addiction forced him to refuse any painkillers. Because he had to keep his ankle elevated to keep from having too much pain, he was taking a break from doing book reviews and reading for pleasure. He did not even try to finish Mailer’s nonfiction novel, which describes the 1967 March on the Pentagon. Mailer won a Pulitzer for his work. It was interesting to me, but I don’t think Wallace’s objections to the novel were strictly literary. He famously wrote about the book “I guess part of [Mailer’s] whole charm is his knack for arousing strong reactions. Hitler had the same gift” (D.T. Max). This comment leads me to believe his objections were primarily political, though I’m not steeped enough in Vietnam War resistance movements to know what would be controversial.
4) Leyner, Mark. My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist. New York: Random House, 1990. Print.
I got this book last year in a used bookstore in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago, after having brunch at a hipster restaurant with a newly won Michelin star. This book was actually in a treasure box marked with a sign saying, “Argh, matey! $1 books!” When Wallace first read Leyner’s book, he loved it, but he revisited it after going through recovery for alcohol and drug abuse and felt differently. The book is seventeen linked stories, and reading it is a psychedelic experience. What Wallace had once loved about it—how it conveyed American television addiction and the way television alters the mind of its viewers—he later saw as part of a moral crisis in fiction. A significant part of Wallace’s journey as a writer was outgrowing avant-garde literature he had once idolized in favor of something that could offer deeper connection and moral depth.
5) Ellis, Bret Easton. Less than Zero. New York: Penguin, 1987. Print.
I got this book and the McInerney books at a three-story used bookstore I love in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago. The store is called Myopic Books, and it is one of my favorites, partially because it is enormous, partially because it is just around the corner from my favorite donut shop, and partially because it has a cozy vibe created by a lot of mismatched, old furniture. It’s a pleasant place to spend an entire afternoon, which is what I did the afternoon I found Less than Zero, Bright Lights, Big City, and Story of My Life. Wallace’s professor at the U of A, where Wallace attended school as a fiction MFA student, was veteran novelist and essayist Richard Elman. Elman disliked postmodernism and minimalism, but he assigned “brat pack” reading (Ellis and McInerney) nonetheless. Wallace’s classmates critiqued the simple narratives Ellis heeded, but Wallace fought back, interested in the way the novels held readers’ attention. He provocatively questioned his classmates: “what should we be writing about? Horses and buggies?” (D.T. Max). However, Ellis is of particular interest as a character in Wallace’s life. He released a notoriously cruel string of tweets about Wallace following D.T. Max’s biography, and another one following the recent release of the David Foster Wallace movie, “The End of the Tour.” Gerald Howard, who was an editor at Penguin in 1985, chalks the feud up to professional competition between the two authors. Whereas Ellis has been both loved and hated as the peak of American minimalism, Wallace is lauded as a brainy genius tackling the complexity of life. For Wallace to be painted the plaster saint on top of it is too much for Ellis to tolerate quietly.
6) McInerney, Jay. Bright Lights, Big City. New York: Random House, 1984. Print.
As mentioned above, I got this book at Myopic Books in Chicago. I loved McInerney right away. He’s easy to read, and he makes you lust after being young and free in a way no other fiction I’ve read has. It’s almost dangerous how much McInerney glamorizes the carefree condition of the invincible youth. It is easy for me to see what Wallace felt was worth defending in minimalist fiction.
7) McInerney, Jay. Story of my Life. New York: Random House, 1988. Print.
Once again, as mentioned above, this book too came from Myopic. I prefer Bright Lights, Big City to Story of my Life. The protagonist in Bright Lights, Big City is almost like a grown-up, more popular Holden Caulfield (though I realize popularity erases perhaps Holden’s most important quality: his outsider anger). The protagonist of Story of My Life is a coke-addicted actress. She feels more wild and out of control, and she is as a result less relatable and more difficult to feel invested in. Regardless, McInerney returns to a setting he does so well: New York nightlife, and there is much to love. Wallace also assigned this novel to the creative writing class he taught at Amherst, telling them that he and McInerney were at Yaddo together (their first hint that Wallace was more than a last minute addition to the faculty).
8) Franzen, Jonathan. The Corrections. New York: Picador, 2002. Print.
I bought this book my junior year at a small sidewalk sale outside a tiny library in a town a few towns away from the Catskills lodge I was trying to navigate to with my sister and our mutual high school friend. The Corrections was poking out like a sore thumb among stacks of cheap, paperback romance novels. I had actually already read it in high school, but I had borrowed someone else’s copy then. I don’t know that Wallace ever read The Corrections, but given his close friendship with Franzen, I assume he did. Franzen was Wallace’s confidant, cheerleader, friend, mentor, and editor. When Wallace was in recovery in Tuscon, he moved into a cabin that was somewhat removed from the city and the U of A campus, and while there, a publisher sent him Franzen’s debut novel, The Twenty-Seventh City. I have long searched for a good, hardcover copy of this novel, but have so far come up empty. Wallace fell deeply in love with the book for the way it combined postmodernism and realism; postmodernism with a soul. This was the starting point of his friendship with Franzen, which grew to be one of the greatest friendships between any two authors. Franzen repeatedly encouraged Wallace and picked him back up. When Wallace committed suicide in 2008, Franzen grieved angrily and publicly, but his primary objectives always appeared to be: 1) doing justice to the memory of Wallace by refusing to allow him to be memorialized as a man he was not, and 2) caring for Wallace’s widow, Karen Green. I would go so far as to say that the only time Franzen has successfully proven himself to be a kind and decent person was in the wake of this tragedy (and over the course of his friendship with Wallace in general). In the touching, moving, extremely sad New Yorker article “Farther Away,” Franzen wrote, “He was lovable the way a child is lovable, and he as capable of returning love with a childlike purity. If love is nevertheless excluded from his work, it’s because he never quite felt that he deserved to receive it. He was a lifelong prisoner on the island of himself.”
9) Crane, Stephen. The Great Short Works of Stephen Crane. New York: Harper & Row, 1968. Print.
I bought this tiny, worn paperback over winter break this year at a used bookstore and sheet music store, which is on the second floor of an ornate, out of order theater in Chicago’s Loop. Later in his career, when Wallace was trying to curtail his experimental postmodernism with a heavier dose of realism, he returned to older, more classic authors. He wrote to Jon Franzen, “I’ve had to educate myself about people like Stephen Crane and Edith Wharton. Actually that’s been a blast. I had no idea they were so good” (D.T. Max). It is clear to me that Wallace was searching for literature that could speak to people; that he had given up on proving how clever he could be in favor of a realer, deeper style of writing. I find that mission really compelling and touching, and I feel like I am even more deeply inside it when I read from this Crane compilation, which I have not yet finished. Wallace’s growing respect for the classics made his literature far more readable, and the effect of that is visible in The Pale King, his posthumous novel.
10) Moody, Rick. The Diviners. 1st ed. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2005. Print.
I got this book at Myopic books on a different afternoon than the Brat Pack novels. I had read Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death, and I loved it, but I also quickly found that his experimental style was not for everyone (the book had been, to my shock, somewhat poorly reviewed). Moody and Wallace shared an editor at Little, Brown—Michael Pietsch, whose son goes to Swarthmore. But when Wallace read The Diviners, he “swore to Franzen he would never write like that again” (D.T. Max). Wallace’s transition toward something more real and human was also a transition away from the experimental: even Wallace’s former hero, Thomas Pynchon, had begun to seem less shiny to him. For my part, I liked The Diviners, but it’s true that Moody is trying on a voice that originated with Wallace and that had already begun to feel tired: the strange blend of slang and formal voice.
11) Powers, Richard. Prisoner’s Dilemma. 1st ed. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1988. Print.
This is one of my favorite books. It’s a hardcover copy—a first edition—and it was gifted to my dad by a professor whose attention my dad and Powers competed for at the U of I. The inscription reads, “For Gideon [my dad] with wishes for his birthday happiness, Bob. Champaign, 22 March, 1988.” My high school English teacher loved Richard Powers and introduced us to his work in class. I read Prisoner’s Dilemma outside of class and loved it. Although Powers and Wallace were not close friends, they were noted contemporaries, and they were in contact. They had a lot in common, both being novelists coming from science backgrounds. Wallace grew up in Champaign, where his parents were professors, and Powers went to the U of I and now teaches there. They are both MacArthur geniuses. There is one excellent interview Powers and Wallace did together with John O’Brien in which they come off as great pals. I think it is clear that they truly respected each other.
12) Powers, Richard. Plowing the Dark. New York: Picador, 2000. Print.
I bought this book for class, as it was the Powers novel my high school English teacher assigned us. I think this is the ultimate novel, and yet, as I recently told one friend who liked it much less, I almost never recommend it. Perhaps Powers was in need of a bit of the transformation Wallace underwent: he is often too preoccupied with getting every detail correct and with enfolding all of his encyclopedic knowledge into the story that the story itself is compromised. Still, as Powers’ popularity and prolific publishing indicate, his work is readable and well-loved. I believe the reason Powers was closer with Franzen than Powers is that Franzen had a grip on the human component Powers sometimes puts on the back burner; it was that component that Wallace loved in Franzen’s work and aspired to someday be able to write as well.
13) Welty, Eudora. The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1909. Print.
This was an old book of my grandma’s. One of their friends gifted it to her after her first heart attack, which left her with only 32% of her heart functioning. The inscription reads: “To help the hours pass quickly and pleasantly and get you well soon—hurry home! Love, Marilyn and Lev.” The collection includes the story, “Why I Live at the P.O.” which Wallace assigned his students at Amherst (along with Lee K. Abbott’s “Living Alone in Iota”) to “showcase voice” (D.T. Max). It was important to Wallace by this point to highlight that even realistic fiction has elements of play involved, one of which is the voice.
1) Karr, Mary. Lit. New York: Harpers Collins, 2009. Print.
I got this book from a well-known used bookstore called Dog-Eared, which is in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco, while visiting a friend over winter break. I was finishing up finals and took a study break to get coffee, and we passed this shop on the way. I had been looking for a copy of Lit for years. Wallace had fallen hard for Mary Karr as she helped him out of recovery (a recovering alcoholic herself, she frequently went to meetings and volunteered at the sober house Wallace lived in for some time). She resisted his advances for a while, during which period he tattooed her name in a heart on his shoulder. When they did date, they shared a destructive and tumultuous relationship, but it has always seemed to me that Karr was needlessly caustic toward Wallace. In Lit, she writes in one chapter about how he wanted to pick her child up from school rather than lend her his car to retrieve her own child. What shines through most clearly is that Wallace was too juvenile for Karr, who had a kid and was intermittently attempting to piece her broken marriage back together. Still, it seems almost cruel how Karr has spoken of Wallace since his death.
2) Miller, Alice. The Drama of the Gifted Child. New York: Basic Books, 1981. Print.
I found this small, hardcover copy in the parenting section of Myopic sometime last year. It’s a somewhat boring read, but I understand that it was groundbreaking in its time. Karr gave Wallace a copy of this book at some point, and it resonated deeply with him. Through reading Miller’s work, Wallace came to blame his mother intensely for his depression and difficulties, scribbling her initials in the margin next to this paragraph: “As soon as the child is regarded as a possession for which one has a particular goal, as soon as one exerts control over him, his vital growth will be violently interrupted” (Miller via D.T. Max). Following this revelation, Wallace actually cut off contact with his mother, and they remained estranged for the better part of five years.
3) Eugenides, Jeffrey. The Marriage Plot. 1st ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. Print.
I originally read this book on Kindle when I graduated from high school, and then I read it again aloud to my sister on a vacation in Israel, and then I discussed it ad nauseum with my dad, who I made read it. Then, I discovered that it is commonly speculated that the central relationship is loosely based on David Foster Wallace and Mary Karr’s relationship, and that is when I bought a beautiful, big, hardcover copy from Powell’s, a used bookstore in Hyde Park, Chicago. Though it is difficult to see much of Karr in the gentle, timid Madeline, it is easy to see Wallace in the manic-depressive but genius Leonard: so easy, in fact, that I feel as if reading that character helped me better understand Wallace, whether it is truly intended to be a portrait of Wallace or not.
4) Max, D.T. Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. London: Granta, 2012. Print.
I ordered this book on Kindle as soon as I learned about it, and soon after, I bought a hardcover edition from a Barnes and Noble. I read D.T. Max’s biography of Wallace the summer going into my sophomore year. I was lightly interning for a literary magazine and had a good amount of time to kill. I read everything I could find about Wallace that summer. I had become obsessed. I was thinking of writing a thesis on Wallace, and I was hungry and desperate for more information. Max’s biography, though I am sure it is not perfect, is a stunning memorialization of a genius author and a caring, but sick, human being. It enlightened me to much about Wallace that I did not previously know, and it expanded on much about Wallace that I vaguely knew. But most importantly, Max’s biography sparked my interest in Wallace’s influences. Though I have merely chipped away at the long list of influences whose impact on Wallace cannot be overstated, I am always looking for more of the novels on that list. I love seeing how these authors show up in Wallace’s fiction and nonfiction.
1) Wallace, David Foster. Broom of the System. New York: Penguin Books, 1987. Print.
I got my copy of this from a Half-Priced Books in Deerfield, Illinois, the northern suburb of Chicago where I grew up, when I was a senior in high school. Half-Priced Bookstores are sort of great and terrible at the same time: they offer the low prices that make used books appealing, but their corporate chain atmosphere removes the soul book lovers seek in used bookstores. Broom is the novel Wallace wrote for his creative writing thesis at Amherst, which became his debut novel. It is greatly in keeping with young Wallace: brainy, brilliant, experimental, inaccessible but clever and amusing. I loved reading it, but I’m glad his fiction grew beyond this early work. Still, it is often staggering to me to imagine that Wallace wrote this when he was just 22.
2) Wallace, David Foster. Girl with the Curious Hair. 1st ed. New York: Norton & Company, 1989. Print.
This is one of my most special books. It’s a laminated, hard cover, first edition, which I bought for $50 at a tiny, overcrowded, extremely bizarre used bookstore in Chicago that I have never been too before or since. The man who sold it to me said, as he was handing it to me, “we didn’t jack up the price because of the suicide,” which I hardly knew how to respond to, so I just nodded at him. This collection too is emblematic of Wallace’s earlier work, but his experimental edge is toned down by the minimalist influence of Bret Easton Ellis. He replaced Ellis’s bored characters with a sarcastic, angry voice, but the effect was the same: he managed to convey the biting boredom that can fill someone’s life.
3) Wallace, David Foster and Mark Costello. Signifying Rappers. New York: Hachette Book Group, 1990. Print.
This book was at the checkout counter of a used bookstore near my favorite ramen shop in Wrigleyville, Chicago. They had a collection of new copies of Wallace’s books, including Signifying Rappers. I bought it because I didn’t have it, but I have to confess I’ve never been able to really read it. This was Wallace’s joint project with his good friend from Amherst, Mark Costello, and I like what it says about him. It was the first book to treat rap seriously as a prime analytical topic. He looked to identify what rap’s ascendency and popularity said about American culture. But the book was not wildly popular, in part because it was already dated by the time it was finally published.
4) Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. New York: Hachette Book Group, 1996. Print.
This was the first David Foster Wallace book I ever owned, and it is pricelessly special to me. In my family, because we’re Jewish, my dad somewhat jokingly does not celebrate Pagan holidays. In place of Valentine’s Day, a Pagan holiday, we celebrate “Happy Loving Day,” for which the customary gift is a hardcover book with a beautiful, handwritten inscription. When I was seventeen, my Happy Loving Day book was Infinite Jest, with a breathtaking inscription too long to transcribe here. I had only recently fallen in love with DFW; one of my most influential high school English teachers had been trying to tackle the 1200-page tome for a while, and he spoke of DFW often and reverentially. We read Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon commencement address, “This is Water,” in class, and I fell in love with Wallace immediately. Though I have since learned that that speech is a woefully inadequate representation of who Wallace was, I still love the speech and I still love David Foster Wallace. When my dad got me Infinite Jest, I largely stopped doing my homework or sleeping until I finished it. That was when my obsession really began. I cherish this book more than any other book I own. One thing I like best about the book is that in order to market it despite its length, the marketing team at Little, Brown had to frame the novel as a challenge, daring readers to be bold enough to read it. What’s astounding is thinking about how much Wallace had already cut out of the novel: he lauded Michael Pietsch, his editor, for forcing him to think about how greatly it disrupted a reader’s experience of the novel to constantly have to flip back and forth between the primary text and the endnotes in the back.
5) Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. 10th anniversary edition. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2006. Print.
I found a used copy of this edition in Powell’s in Chicago sometime in the summer before my freshman year of college, after I had finished Infinite Jest for the first time. Someone wrote in the front of the book, “if you pretend you’ve read this, you’re an asshole,” which I think is a good introduction to the book. Dave Eggers was charged with the intimidating responsibility of writing the introduction, and it is clear from what he writes that he was instructed to make the novel seem less intimidating, making Eggers’ job even more-so. He did a beautiful job. He made Infinite Jest as accessible as one could possibly make it, arguing eloquently that its length is offset by a deeply human cast going through deeply human—not sensationalist, but realistic, achingly True—American life, a cornerstone of which Wallace saw as addiction.
6) Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. 20th anniversary edition. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2016. Print.
I ordered this edition from Amazon as soon as it was available, and it actually hasn’t arrived yet because it was on backorder. The 20th anniversary introduction is by Tom Bissell, whose take I am extremely eager to read.
7) Wallace, David Foster. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. New York: Little, Brown, 1997. Print.
This was the first DFW nonfiction I was ever introduced to. I found this collection my senior year of high school at one of my favorite coffee shops in Evanston, Kafein, which has a ‘take a book, leave a book’ policy. I took this book and left a book no one I could imagine would ever want to read, which is probably an unfair thing to do. DFW’s nonfiction is passionate, hilarious, and alive, which is partially because it is not entirely nonfiction; it is widely known that DFW played it somewhat hard and loose with the facts. The title essay is about a cruise he took, for the sake of journalism, which he absolutely loathed in every way one would expect someone like him to loathe a cruise. He felt the saccharine, “fun”-soaked activity programming was intended to anesthetize the vacationers from their own misery, but he found that the attempt at distraction backfired instead.
8) Wallace, David Foster. Everything and More. New York: Norton & Company, 2004. Print.
I ordered this book from Amazon fairly recently—about six months ago. I knew I would never find a good used copy because it is so infrequently read, and it is easy for me to see why. The book begins with a somewhat brief introduction to mathematical language, the prefacer tripping over his own unsuccessful but ambitious attempts to make this “history of infinity” seem accessible to non-math people. It’s hideously inaccessible, and it really reveals the depth of DFW’s genius. It’s fascinating to read regardless of its heavy math lingo because DFW’s spirit is palpable in the pages—he still manages to make funny quips, even when he is talking about the history of the mathematical concept about infinity.
9) Wallace, David Foster. Oblivion. New York: Little, Brown, 2004. Print.
I got this short story collection at Strand in New York when I was a sophomore in college, on one of my first solo-trips to New York. It is commonly heeded as a predecessor to The Pale King because it explores the many layers of bureaucratic bogus that tinge and obscure genuine human connection. It is clear throughout this story collection that DFW is attempting to connect in a deeper way, but it is difficult to plow through his meandering, verbose sentences. It feels like someone trying desperately to communicate with you in a language you haven’t quite learned.
10) Wallace, David Foster. Consider the Lobster. 1st ed. New York: Little, Brown, 2005. Print.
This is another of my most special books, as it is a laminated, hard cover, first edition copy. I bought it for $25 at a bookstore where I also found a coffee table book of lost grocery lists (needless to say, this was a delightful day). This is, in my opinion, the very best of David Foster Wallace. He is funny, witty, and intelligible, all at once. Although he felt self-conscious about the inclusion of his review of Updike’s Toward the End of Time, I actually found his review to be appropriately critical as well as appropriately forgiving; it is clear that DFW respects Updike and acknowledges that this was in no way representative of Updike’s best work. The best essay, however, is the essay, “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky.” Brian Johnson, a professor at Swarthmore, speaks reverentially of Frank’s biography of Dostoevsky and of Frank as a person, and DFW’s sentiments echo Professor Johnson’s. What is best about the essay is that DFW concludes on a beautiful, hopeful note about the potential of fiction to capture the heart of humanity, and he is self-reflective about his own courage to try to do the same. It is obvious from this essay that David Foster Wallace was attempting—in earnest—to move toward a more human fiction; toward connection and depth; toward something dark but urgently important that had the power, if captured well, to unite people and make them feel less alone. In some ways, it is the pursuit of this that killed him.
11) Wallace, David Foster. This is Water. New York: Little, Brown, 2009. Print.
This is a paperback edition of Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon commencement speech. Though the speech is, as I mentioned before, hardly representative of Wallace as a person, it is an excellent speech. If seen in context of his worse qualities, it is actually easy to understand the darkness and the beauty David Foster Wallace exhibited; he was not merely a gentle soul, but he was a gentle soul. Attempting to live my life by the ethos encapsulated in this speech has been as great a challenge as any I have ever tackled. What he argues for is for people to decenter themselves in their own lives—to keep others’ consciousness at the forefront of their minds rather than their own; to privilege others’ needs over one’s own. I read the speech every year, many times a year, but ritually on New Year’s Eve. It’s the perennial resolution.
12) Wallace, David Foster. The Pale King. Ed. Michael Pietsch. 1st ed. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2011. Print.
This is Wallace’s posthumous novel. I bought several copies of it as soon as it was published for various DFW fans I knew, but I didn’t buy my own copy until winter break of my freshman year, when it was lying out of place at a Barnes and Noble, which seemed like some sort of sign. I love many things about this novel. What I love most is the introduction, by editor Michael Pietsch, who put the book together. Pietsch’s respect and reverence and genuine love for Wallace is so palpable in his introduction and in his commitment to putting together the best conceivable version of this book, many chapters of which had no obvious place in the novel. Though I suspect a lot of this was guesswork, it was important to Pietsch to make educated guesses, which I believe he did very well. I would love to someday spend more time with DFW’s notes for the novel, which are at the U of A library. Wallace’s widow, Karen Green, and his agent, Bonnie Nadell, were also indispensable in the project to complete this novel. In fact, Karen Green did the cover art, which is another aspect of the book that I love. She is a visual artist, and in fact, she met DFW when she contacted him to ask permission to use some of his language for a project she was working on. It seems only fitting that she would do the cover art for his last book. Never have I read a novel that so achingly exposed the numb monotony that is overtaking the country. This book made me feel more alone than I have ever felt, more fed up with my own boredom and yet more trapped inside it, than anything else I’ve ever experienced, which oddly made me feel less alone at the same time. I think that was what DFW wanted, and I think he was successful in achieving it. This book truly tortured him, and if there can be any solace, it is in the great success that the novel became. D.T. Max perhaps somewhat melodramatically refers to it as the novel that destroyed Wallace, which I suppose is not entirely untrue.
13) Wallace, David Foster. Both Flesh and Not. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2013. Print.
My dad got me a lovely, hardcover edition of this book for Happy Loving Day my freshman year of college, which I promptly left in the seat pocket on an Amtrak to New York for an interview. When I realized I lost it, I was devastated, and I called Amtrak every day for about four months, pestering them to search for it and check the lost and found. It never turned up, but a friend got me a replacement, paperback copy for Valentine’s Day this year. The book is heavy on tennis essays. Tennis was a great, great passion of Wallace’s, and he frequently exaggerated his own talent. Tennis players show up in much of his fiction as well, most notably in Infinite Jest. I am not particularly interested in tennis, which indicates what a good writer Wallace was, since he was able to make tennis interesting even to me.
14) Wallace, David Foster. The David Foster Wallace Reader. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2014. Print. My dad got me this book (and another) for Happy Loving Day my sophomore year of college. It was a replacement for the copy of Both Flesh and Not that I stupidly left on the train. He attempted to recreate the original inscription, and to his credit, it was not far off from my recollection of the original. The reader is a phenomenal tome of Wallace’s original work and others’ essays about him. I still have not made it all the way through, but it is a testament to his popularity and respectability within literary circles how many were willing to write for the anthology. I look forward to tackling it in its entirety after graduation.
1) Lipsy, David. Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. New York: Random House, 2010. Kindle e-book.
I still only have this book on Kindle, but I would like to find a print copy of it at some point. It is a transcript of a three-day, road-trip/interview that Wallace shared with David Lipsky, only for Lipsky to be released from the obligation to turn the interview into an article (much to his relief). The transcript was the basis for the recent Wallace film, “The End of the Tour.” Lipsky worked tirelessly to do Wallace justice, and his anxiety over getting him right is so palpable as to be heartbreaking. This was a fascinating way to get an inside look at Wallace: although he was performing in a sense, one has to wonder how much he could perform over the course of three days. His self-consciousness, his delightful but crass sense of humor, his genius: they’re all legible in this lengthy transcript.
2) The Last Interview. Brooklyn: Melville House, 2012. Print.
I recently ordered this from Amazon and have barely gotten to read it yet. It is a collection of several interviews, including the last interview Wallace did, which was with Christopher Farley at the Wall Street Journal. I am especially eager to read the interview he did with Dave Eggers, a contemporary of Wallace’s whom Wallace greatly admired and whose Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius Wallace praised.