¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 But the writing that was produced on and around Infinite Summer wasn’t just shouting into the void, and it wasn’t just the kinds of self-absorbed rambling critics often associate with personal blogs. The public, open nature of the group and the kinds of sharing that it produced reveal the degree to which AA, blogs, and Infinite Jest all share an impetus toward connection with others, transforming self-expression into a generous mode of Giving It Away that, like Wallace’s novel, creates the possibility of connection for other readers. For many participants, that engagement could only come through the mediating safety of the internet, where they could discuss their own personal experiences with an openness and honesty not possible in face-to-face interactions. For others, the desire for connection in and around the text led to the development of in-person reading groups and meetups, and culminated in a number of events marking the conclusion of Infinite Summer, held at bookstores and libraries around the country.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 That all of this energy was being poured into reading and discussing a novel — and an extremely difficult one at that — seems highly unusual in such a hypermediated age. We’ve all of course heard it said with quite convincing authority that no one reads novels anymore, and certainly that literary fiction is a form in decline. The National Endowment for the Arts famously warned the country about the devastating prognosis for literary fiction in their recent reports, Reading at Risk (2004) and To Read or Not to Read (2007), indicating that rates of leisure-oriented reading of poetry and fiction were dropping in every demographic group surveyed. It’s a head-scratcher: the conventional wisdom insists that people aren’t supposed to be reading books, and yet here were hundreds of them spending their summer reading an exceptionally difficult one.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 Moreover, the internet is frequently imagined to be one of the causes of reading’s decline, a key factor in so diminishing our attention spans that we can no longer sustain ourselves through the long-form narrative, and yet here is a reading group inspired and sustained by its internet context. Clearly, as in the case of Oprah’s Book Club, the relationship between the newer medium and the more traditional form of the novel is more complex than we’ve acknowledged. And as in Oprah’s Book Club, one of the successes of Infinite Summer lies in its savvy connection of the right text with the right readers — readers seeking a game-like challenge in the novel’s narrative structure, readers critical of the direction of contemporary culture, readers turning to a book for solace in the wake of grief, readers hoping to understand something about their own experiences by seeing them refracted through the book’s perspective. Beyond connecting the right text with the right readers, however, Infinite Summer succeeded by connecting the right readers with one another.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 3 All of this reflects what might now be seen to be a profound misunderstanding in Infinite Jest of the future development of mediation. The novel, perhaps needless to say, explores that future from its own vantage point in the mid-1990s, a point when the internet was only beginning to break into the popular consciousness. That internet of course was strikingly different from the network of networks with which we now engage. Though the novel was written contemporaneously with the earliest of what we now think of as blogs, which began to appear in 1994, the term “weblog” was only used for the first time in late 1997; Wikipedia was launched five years after Infinite Jest, in 2001; Facebook appeared eight years after the novel’s publication, in 2004; YouTube emerged the following year, in 2005. Given the influence that these projects have had not just on how the internet has developed, but on our very conceptions of how it operates, it’s not terribly surprising that Infinite Jest imagined a very different networked future, one that would take much the same course as the then-dominant medium, television.