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The story behind Infinite Summer

June 29, 2009 | 11:45 am

Infinitesummer

Exactly why Matthew Baldwin decided that the footnote-heavy, uber-smart David Foster Wallace novel "Infinite Jest" would make the perfect summer read was a puzzle. And just as intriguing was that after he recruited friends to read with him, the online book club they formed, Infinite Summer, seems to have taken off in as many ways as the book's 1,078 pages. Jacob Silverman gets Baldwin to give him the inside story.

Jacket Copy: How did you choose "Infinite Jest"? Is there something about Wallace's work, in all of its maximalist, postmodern freneticism, that you think particularly lends itself to this kind of experience?

Matthew Baldwin: After David Foster Wallace's death last September, I was struck by a great sadness -- not because I had read his work and felt a kinship, but because I had read nothing of him, despite the entreaties of my friends who had, and despite the knowledge that the type of literature he was reputed to write was exactly the kind I most enjoy. (My favorite novel of the last decade, "House of Leaves," is profoundly Wallaceian, or so I've been told.) I felt like I had wasted my opportunity to read his works while writing a fan letter afterward was still a viable option.

So the selection of "Infinite Jest" was something of a personal atonement. Its "maximalist, postmodern freneticism" played no factor in the decision because, having not yet read it, I am only dimly aware that it has such qualities.

JC: Infinite Summer makes use of many social networking and digital platforms: blogs, discussion forums, tumblr, Twitter, Facebook. How has it been managing all of these platforms? Have you been able to integrate them, or does it sometimes seem like too much media to handle?

Matthew Baldwin: Each of the media has its own niche, so juggling them has not been as difficult as you might imagine. The main website is used for content. Twitter is used for announcements. Short quotations and photos are posted to tumblr.The Facebook community is largely self-sustaining. And while it took some effort to get the forums up and configured, it has taken on a life of its own. Rather than integrate the various media, we just have them all point back to Infinitesummer.org, which serves as a nexus.

How do you think participating in Infinite Summer will shape your reading experience of "Infinite Jest"?

MB: One thing I am already noticing about "Infinite Jest," even 60 pages in, is that it is an intensely claustrophobic novel. Much of the action takes place in small apartments, hospital wards and in the minds of the various protagonists. It's so overwhelming that it would be easy to close the novel with a shudder and never return. I think the knowledge that there are thousands of folks out there reading concurrently goes a long way toward leavening those feelings.

JC: Where did the idea to make this experience a public and social one come from? Have you taken any lessons from National Novel Writing Month or other similar online literary efforts?

MB: National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) spawned Infinite Summer, albeit through three or four layers of indirection. Several years ago a friend asked if I was going to participate, and, not knowing of what they spoke, I asked them to explain the event. They told me that the goal was to write a novel in 30 days. "I'm lucky to successfully read a novel in a month," I joked.

That stray comment came back to me the following year, when I saw that my friend Eden M. Kennedy had started a NaNoWriMo spinoff event: National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo: "Post every day for a month. That's all you have to do.") And having long since learned that plagiarism is the soul of wit (at least in the world of blogging), the following year I ripped off Eden's rip-off.

I called mine National Novel Reading Month, and I challenged myself (and others) to read a classic over the month of November. The first year we did "Catch-22"; last year we read Nabokov's "Lolita."

Shortly after NaNoReMo 2008, I was mulling over books for the next installment, and at some point during my ruminations, the phrase "Infinite Summer" popped in my head. I don't want to admit to being so superficial as to structure an entire Internet-wide event around a catchy title ... so I won't. Draw your own conclusions.

JC: Name a social network -- Live Journal, Shelfari, Goodreads, Twitter, Flickr and even "Ravelry, a website devoted to knit and crochet" -- and it seems people have found a way to use it as part of Infinite Summer. Fans have also contributed calendars and progress-tracker widgets. Did you expect people to respond with such fervor, so much so that they're not just participating but using the Web to create new forums and methods of participation? Has this outpouring of enthusiasm caused you to rethink how you're doing things, such as by more closely integrating fan-created content, communities, utilities and the like?

MB: When I had previously read books as part of NaNoReMo, only a handful of people actually read along, although many folks enjoyed reading my updates for one reason or another. Considering that I.J. is more than twice as long as anything I read then, I expected that would be the case here as well, that the other three guides and I would read and comment, and everyone else would essentially spectate. In fact, we even called ourselves "Commentators" initially, on the premise that we would provide, and everyone else would simply read, the commentary.

Now it's become clear that we four are only the smallest fraction of the full readership. We hastily changed our titles to "guides" to reflect that fact -- our goal now will be to prompt and moderate the discussion, not provide it. And watching the event spill out onto other sites on the Web has been nothing short of amazing. If we four were to get lost at sea for the next three months, Infinite Summer would barrel on unimpeded, and our absence might not even be noticed until the news article, three months hence, in which it was revealed that the sole survivor had eaten the other three.

JC: The four of you have fairly different backgrounds -- all geographically scattered, and one is a published novelist, another is a student at a British university -- though you all seem have to written for the Web or run blogs or similar Web 2.0 projects. How did you all connect to collaborate on Infinite Summer?

MB: Eden was the first person I contacted, as the idea was half her fault (even if unwittingly). She agreed to do Infinite Summer with me, perhaps with that expectation that, like all my brainstorms, this one would ultimately wither on the vine. Unfortunately for her, knowing she would participate gave me the momentum I needed to actually follow through.

Kevin Guilfoile was the second person I solicited. Kevin and I are both contributing writers for the Morning News and met in person when he was in Seattle on his "Cast of Shadows" book tour. He is also the co-founder and commissioner of the Morning News Tournament of Books. Having someone on the team who could both write books and write about books struck me as a pretty good idea.

It was at this point that I realized that the three guides we had assembled thus far were all 35 years of age or older. We were, in other words, the generation for whom "Infinite Jest" was written. I wondered if the novel would still resonant with someone for whom the McSweeney's brand of humor was not a revelation, but an everyday fact of life. So, via Twitter, I put out a call for literate twentysomethings. Avery Edison came highly recommended, and after only a few minutes at her website, I knew she was the fourth wheel we needed to get this vehicle rolling.

JC: You mentioned that you have been told that "House of Leaves," your favorite book from the last decade, is "profoundly Wallaceian." What drew you in the first place to "House of Leaves," a dramatically experimental and postmodern novel?

MB: 2004 was a bad fiction year for me -- nothing I read really stood out. So early in the following year I launched the 2005 Booklist Project, in which I asked people from all around the Internet to basically assemble my fiction reading list for the upcoming year. "House of Leaves" was one of the many books that made the cut, along with several others that remain my favorites even to this day: "The Time Traveler's Wife," "Oracle Night" and "Cloud Atlas." Not coincidentally, all four of those novels share a great deal with "Infinite Jest," including unique and sometimes bizarre narrative and framing devices, as well as a willingness to employ chronological shenanigans.

JC: How has the reaction been from the DFW fan community, such as the Howling Fantods?

MB: So far the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. I had some trepidation going in, worried that longtime "Infinite Jest" fans might feel the sense of territorialism about the novel that fans of an indie rock band feel when the group hits the Top 40, but everyone seems genuinely thrilled that so many new people will be exposed to the book.

JC: Might this turn into an annual tradition, perhaps with other books?

MB: I have already received a raft of suggestions for next summer's reading, including "Ulysses," "Underworld," "Don Quixote" and the entire "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. Whether this becomes an annual or year-around thing will depend largely on how successful this one proves, and whether or not I am utterly exhausted by its end.

-- Jacob Silverman

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