NEW YORK — 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 1,000 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 have signed on to plunge into the novel, starting today, along with a quartet of Web-savvy writers who have never read it, or at least never finished.
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 http://infinitesummer.org.
Some participants are longtime “Infinite Jest” fans happy for an excuse to re-read 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. “I've read it to around the 120th page twice.”
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.”
Erudite and conversational, imaginative and minutely observant, the novel is as big-hearted as it is big. Wallace's “idea was to make something that was irresistibly funny and entertaining in order to draw you into a subject of infinite sadness,” said Michael Pietsch, his longtime editor at Little, Brown and Co.
But the book's nonlinear structure, extensive endnotes and sheer heft have given it a recondite, somewhat academic image. “Infinite Jest” may be a best-seller, but an Oprah Winfrey pick, it's not.
Indeed, not a single one of the book club clearinghouse BookMovement.com's more than 18,000 member groups is reading or planning to read “Infinite Jest,” though one is examining a reader's guide to it, said the organization's president, Pauline Hubert.
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 dispel the experts-only aura surrounding the novel “and 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, a founding editor 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 Pietsch, who plans to contribute a commentary on editing the book.