A Supposedly Fun Blog

June 29, 2009

Infinite Footnotes

Filed under: Uncategorized — myglesias @ 4:10 pm

By Matthew Yglesias

I had a plan worked out in my head for what I was going to say, but then I clicked over to the blog and found that Dylan already expressed all my views on this subject. But to some up, Dylan and I are apparently identical people who both don’t like reading fiction but were tempted into Infinite Jest by the fact that (1) David Foster Wallace writes a lot of non-fiction and “seemed like a nonfiction fan’s novelist” and (2) “In an earlier life, I had a mild obsession with provincial Canadian politics, and IJ involves Québécois separatism.” I’ll just offer Dylan the advice to always make sure to scan The Courses of Instruction and see if Harvard ever again offers “Introduction to Canadian Politics” as a class—I took it and learned a lot, not least about how difficult it is to get a good grade in an “Introduction to Canadian Politics” class that’s mostly populated by Canadians.

So instead, let’s talk about the endnotes. This is annoying! Notes quo notes are a cute idea, but everyone knows that it’s more convenient for the reader to use footnotes rather than endnotes. Publishers don’t like footnotes, however, because it makes it more complicated to lay the book out. So non-fiction writers are typically forced into endnotes, which prevents you from doing any discursive notes because that will antagonize readers. And yet here’s Wallace deliberately antagonizing us with his endnotes. Presumably the point here is to get across not only the text of the notes, but something about the tactile experience of flipping back and forth and constantly losing your place. Except I’m reading the book on a Kindle, so the experience is actually different—you click on a little thingy and jump to the note, then click again and you jump right back. This is, I think, less convenient than a footnote in a conventional book, but more convenient than an endnote. So, internet, am I actually missing something important by having this greater convenience?


  1. Unfortunately, this probably isn’t a book that is well suited to the Kindle. Which, I suppose, isn’t what most people would have guessed based on the hardcopy’s large dimensions.

    I don’t think you are missing anything tactile but DFW did seem to wish to break up the narrative. It had to do with the experience of losing the thread of the story on a regular basis and on the “shape” of the novel. In an interview (which I can’t find right now) he mentions how he structured the book based on a specific variety of fractals. DFW was a huge math nerd.

    Comment by Rice — June 29, 2009 @ 6:12 pm | Reply

  2. I’m reading it on my iPhone (and will continue to do so) because I like the text in small chunks – makes it easier to focus – but went out yesterday to buy the print copy as well. I wanted it on my shelf, damnit, when I was done, really needed to see how the print text was laid out (for whatever reason) and needed easier access to the endnotes. I find that the eReader on iPhone handles them well up to a point, but his endnotes are so intricate at times that the eReader shorts outs. Plus, see 304 sub does not work at all on the eReader.

    Comment by Miriam — June 29, 2009 @ 6:30 pm | Reply

  3. From what I understand of DFW’s intent, the endnotes are meant to mimic the disjointed, jumbled nature of our experience of the world. We rarely have long, unbroken thoughts without diversions, distractions, vaguely related segues or total flight of ideas. The endnotes create the same impression in the world of Infinite Jest.

    I am personally attached to the experience of flipping back and forth, but perhaps that’s mere sentiment. (For the record, I’ve read IJ twice. It’s one of my two favorite books.) I always told people that two bookmarks (at a minimum) are needed to read it. I suppose the Kindle makes it more convenient, and it’s only the snotty purist in me that would object to it.

    Comment by Dan Summers — June 29, 2009 @ 6:48 pm | Reply

  4. Also, as Wallace himself noted, in a twee way the back-and-forth the of the end-notes loosely resembles a game of tennis. There are also a bunch of narrative things he does, i.e. sections narrated by Pemulis and transcribed by Hal, etc. that do some pretty interesting work with narrative, voice, and so on. Wallace’s continuation of Joyce’s ‘voice’ project is highly understated/rated/etc. All said, it’s a much tidier form of what Faulkner does with italics, I think most all of us would agree.

    Comment by j — June 29, 2009 @ 7:51 pm | Reply

  5. You also have to take this in the broader context of Wallace’s work. This is not an IJ-specific stylistic choice. The man was absolutely in love with endnotes. Check any of his nonfiction pieces from or after the time of IJ’s publication (especially his NYT piece on Federer, which may be the greatest thing ever written about the game of tennis).

    And that Kindle-note device sounds pretty cool! You’re not missing anything except a separate bookmark, and it minimizes the temptation to read ahead.

    Comment by scythia — June 30, 2009 @ 2:43 am | Reply

  6. I’m reading this half on the Kindle and half hardcopy, and I really don’t see a significant difference as far as the endnotes go. With the book itself, I keep a bookmark (well, a finger functioning as a bookmark usually) on the endnotes, so I switch back and forth with pretty much the same ease.

    The biggest difference I find reading on the Kindle is the easy availability of the dictionary and the Internet. If I’m even a little shaky on a word’s definition, I highlight it and get the definition while barely stopping my flow of reading. And looking up names like Dennis Gabor on wikipedia is almost as easy as going to an endnote.

    So there’s a certain amount of a feeling of vague confusion that the Kindle is eliminating for me. That and the lack of physical heft (that “my arm hurts from holding it this must be a significant novel” feeling) are the two biggest differences between the two.

    Comment by WoofWoof — June 30, 2009 @ 11:56 am | Reply

  7. “Dylan and I are apparently identical people who both don’t like reading fiction” — ah-ha. Now I know why Matt likes bad philosophers and thinks we have too many words in English.

    Comment by Jeff — June 30, 2009 @ 2:24 pm | Reply

  8. […] Dylan stole Matt’s idea, and Matt stole my idea (I was busy being wrong about DFW’s endnotes on Twitter a whole week ago), I’ll […]

    Pingback by The Case Against David Foster Wallace « A Supposedly Fun Blog — June 30, 2009 @ 4:20 pm | Reply

  9. […] Matt Yglesias: Presumably the point here is to get across not only the text of the notes, but something about the tactile experience of flipping back and forth and constantly losing your place. Except I’m reading the book on a Kindle, so the experience is actually different—you click on a little thingy and jump to the note, then click again and you jump right back. This is, I think, less convenient than a footnote in a conventional book, but more convenient than an endnote. So, internet, am I actually missing something important by having this greater convenience? […]

    Pingback by Infinite Bloggers « –scott’s blog– — June 30, 2009 @ 4:56 pm | Reply

  10. As scythia notes, he was in love with endnotes generally. But I think they have an especially interesting impact on Infinite Jest. The novel is largely about entertainment and addiction, both to the point of death. The novel is generation-defining in large part because these two related phenomena are two of the largest problem our society faces (not literally entertainment to death, but (mindless) entertainment to, we might say, spiritual or emotional death).

    Wallace asks a generation he sees as being most threatened by addiction, over-entertainment and selling out their values (selling year-numbers to corporations, including those for trash bags and adult undergarments), among other things, to buy a 1,000+ page book, and not only to read it, but in the course of reading it, to have to reaffirm their decision to read it repeatedly while reading it. Every time an endnote appears, the reader, knowing they have hundreds of pages to go, has to decide, ‘Am I going to go to the back to read this endnote in tiny font, only adding to this challenge, or do I just continue on and skip it?’ Even if you skip it, you have to decide to skip it. But to skip it forces you to ask the question of why read this in the first place if you’re not going to read the whole thing? You can’t take full pride in having the thing on your bookshelf, telling yourself and others you’ve read it if you know you didn’t really read it all. Even if you simply want to read them, it is still a bit of a chore, and I think most important of all, a forcing of self-consciousness, to go to the back and read them. You still have to decide to go to the back and read it, and cannot simply continue on being entertained ‘unconsciously’, or without the experience of any agency.

    I think Wallace was deeply bothered by the aspects of modern American life that did not allow for ‘authenticity’. Authenticity was a large theme for him in many of his works, both fiction and nonfiction. Heidegger, for all his faults, had an interesting idea about authenticity. To put it simply, he thought that we are our authentic selves when we are are self-conscious. When we could be ‘replaced’ by some other individual who would be playing our role so to speak, without loss, then we are not truly authentic. When our attention is directed outward toward the world, increasingly in our times, being entertained by it, there is some sense in which ‘anyone’ could be entertained in such a way (at least many, many others). Only when something interrupts that flow of experience, bringing our attention to ourselves and our own experience and capacity for choice, then nobody else can play that role for us. If this all seems like hogwash, then just think of it as a passive/active distinction, with choice and reflection on ourselves and our actions as quintessentially opposed to passive retreat into entertainment-as-distraction.

    The people on this blog have remarked on the self-consciousness that attends reading Infinite Jest, the consciousness *that one is reading Infinite Jest*. The endnotes force you to repeatedly renew that commitment, by interrupting the flow of your experience and having you make a choice–is this really what you want to be doing? If so, then Wallace has not only succeeded in entertaining you, but has done so in a way that strikes at the inauthenticy he fears and loathes, not only through the content of his work, but also its form. Other difficult books may prompt in us the question, do I really want to be doing this? But Wallace prompts that question as part of the novel’s very structure, which reflects its, and his, overarching theme.

    by the way, love your blog Matt.

    Comment by eric c. — June 30, 2009 @ 5:11 pm | Reply

  11. Dan Summers (3) is right. I used two bookmarks and had no problems with the endnotes. Footnotes wouldn’t work very well because some of the notes were several pages long.

    Comment by eriks — June 30, 2009 @ 6:40 pm | Reply

  12. I think you might be something. The point of the footnotes (DFW said this several times in interviews) is to mimic the fractured way we take in information in our daily lives. Obviously the internet is a major contributor. I’m tempted to think of Infinite Jest as a hardcopy hyperlink novel, and the kindle thing just takes it back to the source.

    Comment by Spencer Robins — June 30, 2009 @ 8:12 pm | Reply

  13. Sorry, that first line was supposed to be “I think you might be gaining something.”

    Comment by Spencer Robins — June 30, 2009 @ 8:14 pm | Reply

  14. Matt(1) you’ve read A Theory of Justice for chissakes (2)

    Comment by Gak flower — June 30, 2009 @ 9:52 pm | Reply

  15. Matt(1) you’ve read A Theory of Justice for chissakes (2) why shouldn’t a novel antagonise?

    Comment by B — June 30, 2009 @ 9:52 pm | Reply

  16. Either you’re willing to go through the decoding process of this book, or you’re not. Why do it half-assed. I can’t for the life of me imagine why someone would skip the notes. Hell, some of the best stuff is there, and what little tedium does confront you (especially with the drug notes) is minor compared to the good stuff there.

    DFW, in an interview with Larry King, defended the notes as a way to “fracture” the time line of the reading. Since the entire book is told in anything but chronological order, the notes are integral to the fracturing. He fought with the publisher over them.

    You’re not missing much by using the Kindle. The point is that the author wrote the notes at a later time (the time of the telling) so each time you jump to a note you are jumping to a kind of post-script temporally, and that jumping is one of the big points of the notes. Vonnegutian, in that respect.

    BTW: I used four bookmarks. One for the main, one for the notes, one for the notes on the notes, and one for page 223.

    Comment by Scott Supak — June 30, 2009 @ 10:18 pm | Reply

  17. I copied the years on page 223 onto my main bookmark, so I’d have it always handy for reference.

    Comment by Stu — July 1, 2009 @ 2:28 am | Reply

  18. […] times even less than adequate; of course reading the endnotes is a must, as much as they irk some readers; and it really does help to know your Hamlet, though if you’re thinking of brushing up on the […]

    Pingback by The Walrus Blogs » Infinite Summer: Required Reading » The Haulout — August 24, 2009 @ 6:50 pm | Reply

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