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15 Facts About Infinite Jest

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It's not a stretch (or very original) to call Infinite Jest the defining work of the 1990s. David Foster Wallace's second novel is set in an absurd (but agonizingly believable) near-future, and it explores addiction, entertainment, pleasure, commerce, technology, and tennis—lots and lots of tennis. Here are 15 brief facts about Wallace's sprawling work (which produces about 15 fascinating moments a sentence).

1. Wallace began writing Infinite Jest in earnest in 1991. "I wanted to do something sad," he said in an interview with Salon shortly after its publication in 1996. "I'd done some funny stuff and some heavy, intellectual stuff, but I'd never done anything sad. And I wanted it not to have a single main character. The other banality would be: I wanted to do something real American, about what it's like to live in America around the millennium." The novel has quite the title considering its author's healthy fear of irony.

2. Fantastic online Wallace compendium The Howling Fantods has Steven Moore's notes on the first draft of Infinite Jest. Moore knew Wallace when Wallace was teaching at Illinois State, and he was one of three people to see the early manuscript. He describes it as "[a] mess—a patchwork of different fonts and point sizes, with numerous handwritten corrections/additions on most pages, and paginated in a nesting pattern (e.g., p. 22 is followed by 22A-J before resuming with p. 23, which is followed by 23A-D, etc). Much of it is single-spaced, and what footnotes existed at this stage appear at the bottom of pages...Throughout there are notes in the margins, reminders to fix something or other, adjustments to chronology (which seems to have given Wallace quite a bit of trouble), even a few drawings and doodles. Merely flipping through the 4-inch-high manuscript would give even a seasoned editor the howling fantods."

3. Moore cataloged the changes Wallace made from that initial version to the final, published copy. For example, "instead of a crisis in southern Quebec, Wallace originally set the crisis in Sierra Leone." In addition, the first draft begins not with Hal's college interview in Arizona, but rather his meeting with his father who is disguised as a professional conversationalist. The Year of the Whopper appeared in the original manuscript as "The Year of the Twinkie" and character names were changed around; Orin Incandenza was originally "Cully" in the first draft and also appeared as "Hugh" in early versions.

4. After reading 200 pages of Infinite Jest, Michael Pietsch, Wallace's editor at Little, Brown, told Wallace's agent, "I want to do this book more than I want to breathe.”

5. Pietsch responded to the original 1,600-page manuscript of Infinite Jest with a letter to Wallace saying, "It's exactly the challenge and adventure I came to book publishing to find." He also suggested that Wallace make extensive cuts to the book, adding, "I’m still hoping there are ways to make the novel much shorter, not because any one piece of it isn’t wonderful but because the longer it is the more people will find excuses not to read it. On the attached pages I’ve suggested chapters and scenes that maybe can come out without killing the patient." On Pietsch's letter, Wallace circled that section and simply put a question mark by it.

6. Wallace eventually accepted some of Pietsch's cuts, but he objected to others and pushed back with verbose rebuttals. According to D.T. Max, Wallace's biographer, Wallace "learned to erase passages that he liked from his hard drive, in order to keep himself from putting them back in."

7. It was hyped like crazy before it was published. Little, Brown sent out cryptic postcards to publications teasing the book with phrases like "Infinite Pleasure" and "Infinite Writer." It worked. Infinite Jest was published in February 1996, and by March it was already in its sixth printing.

8. Dave Eggers, who wrote the gushing intro to the 2006 edition of Infinite Jest, gave the novel a less-than-effusive review in The San Francisco Chronicle when it first came out (you could call his feelings "mixed"). In 1996, Eggers described the book as "brilliant," but also called it an "extravagantly self-indulgent novel."

9. According to Ryan Compton's "Infinite Jest by the Numbers," Wallace used a vocabulary of 20,584 unique words to write the 577,608-word Infinite Jest.

10. Compton also calculated that the longest unbroken series of conjunctions in the text is six: "But and so and but so."

11. n+1 has a neat story about where the name for Michael Pemulis, Hal's drug-dealing friend at Enfield Tennis Academy, came from. "Michael Pemulis" was the stage name for a little-known Phoenix musician whose record Wallace had heard while getting his M.F.A. at the University of Arizona in the late '80s.

12. In David Lipsky's transcribed account of his 1996 road trip with Wallace, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Wallace mentions that he hated Infinite Jest's original cover. He said that it looked like the safety booklet on an American Airlines flight. "This was my major complaint about the cover of the book...The cloud system, it's almost identical."

13. Instead, Wallace said he wanted a specific photograph of Fritz Lang directing the cast of Metropolis to be used as Infinite Jest's cover (perhaps this is the photo he alluded to).

14. While Infinite Jest can be seen as prophetic regarding the Internet (especially video-conferencing) and the consequences that come with such an informational firehose, Wallace had never used it as of the novel's publication. "I've never been on the Internet," he told a Chicago Tribune reporter in 1996. "This is sort of what it's like to be alive. You don't have to be on the Internet for life to feel this way." (A few months after that Tribune story, Wallace would participate in an online chatroom interview).

15. The movie rights were sold soon after the book's publication, but don't count on anyone actually filming it. "I'm in the odd position of having taken the money and hoping that it doesn't get made," he said in a 1997 Boston Globe profile. "And I'm feeling confident it won't, since the chances for eighteen-hour movies are small, unless they wanted to dispense catheters upon entering the theater."

[Many thanks to The Howling Fantods, an excellent resource worth checking out.]

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15 Powerful Quotes From Margaret Atwood
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MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images

It turns out the woman behind such eerily prescient novels as The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake is just as wise as her tales are haunting. Here are 15 of the most profound quips from author, activist, and Twitter enthusiast Margaret Atwood, who was born on this day in 1939.

1. On her personal philosophy

 “Optimism means better than reality; pessimism means worse than reality. I’m a realist.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

2. On the reality of being female

“Men often ask me, Why are your female characters so paranoid? It’s not paranoia. It’s recognition of their situation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

3. On limiting how her politics influence her characters

“You know the myth: Everybody had to fit into Procrustes’ bed and if they didn’t, he either stretched them or cut off their feet. I’m not interested in cutting the feet off my characters or stretching them to make them fit my certain point of view.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

4. On so-called “pretty” works of literature

“I don’t know whether there are any really pretty novels … All of the motives a human being may have, which are mixed, that’s the novelists’ material. … We like to think of ourselves as really, really good people. But look in the mirror. Really look. Look at your own mixed motives. And then multiply that.”

— From a 2010 interview with The Progressive

5. On the artist’s relationship with her fans

“The artist doesn’t necessarily communicate. The artist evokes … [It] actually doesn’t matter what I feel. What matters is how the art makes you feel.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

6. On the challenges of writing non-fiction

“When I was young I believed that ‘nonfiction’ meant ‘true.’ But you read a history written in, say, 1920 and a history of the same events written in 1995 and they’re very different. There may not be one Truth—there may be several truths—but saying that is not to say that reality doesn’t exist.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

7. On poetry

“The genesis of a poem for me is usually a cluster of words. The only good metaphor I can think of is a scientific one: dipping a thread into a supersaturated solution to induce crystal formation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

8. On being labeled an icon

“All these things set a standard of behavior that you don’t necessarily wish to live up to. If you’re put on a pedestal you’re supposed to behave like a pedestal type of person. Pedestals actually have a limited circumference. Not much room to move around.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

9. On how we’re all born writers

“[Everyone] ‘writes’ in a way; that is, each person has a ‘story’—a personal narrative—which is constantly being replayed, revised, taken apart and put together again. The significant points in this narrative change as a person ages—what may have been tragedy at 20 is seen as comedy or nostalgia at 40.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

10. On the oppression at the center of The Handmaid's Tale

“Nothing makes me more nervous than people who say, ‘It can’t happen here. Anything can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances.” 

— From a 2015 lecture to West Point cadets

11. On the discord between men and women

“‘Why do men feel threatened by women?’ I asked a male friend of mine. … ‘They’re afraid women will laugh at them,’ he said. ‘Undercut their world view.’ … Then I asked some women students in a poetry seminar I was giving, ‘Why do women feel threatened by men?’ ‘They’re afraid of being killed,’ they said.”

— From Atwood’s Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, 1960-1982

12. On the challenges of expressing oneself

“All writers feel struck by the limitations of language. All serious writers.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

13. On selfies

“I say they should enjoy it while they can. You’ll be happy later to have taken pictures of yourself when you looked good. It’s human nature. And it does no good to puritanically say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be doing that,’ because people do.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

14. On the value of popular kids' series (à la Harry Potter and Percy Jackson)

"It put a lot of kids onto reading; it made reading cool. I’m sure a lot of later adult book clubs came out of that experience. Let people begin where they are rather than pretending that they’re something else, or feeling that they should be something else."

— From a 2014 interview with The Huffington Post

15. On why even the bleakest post-apocalyptic novels are, deep down, full of hope

“Any novel is hopeful in that it presupposes a reader. It is, actually, a hopeful act just to write anything, really, because you’re assuming that someone will be around to [read] it.”

— From a 2011 interview with The Atlantic 

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China's New Tianjin Binhai Library is Breathtaking—and Full of Fake Books
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FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A massive new library in Tianjin, China, is gaining international fame among bibliophiles and design buffs alike. As Arch Daily reports, the five-story Tianjin Binhai Library has capacity for more than 1 million books, which visitors can read in a spiraling, modernist auditorium with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

Several years ago, municipal officials in Tianjin commissioned a team of Dutch and Japanese architects to design five new buildings, including the library, for a cultural center in the city’s Binhai district. A glass-covered public corridor connects these structures, but the Tianjin Binhai Library is still striking enough to stand out on its own.

The library’s main atrium could be compared to that of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum in New York City. But there's a catch: Its swirling bookshelves don’t actually hold thousands of books. Look closer, and you’ll notice that the shelves are printed with digital book images. About 200,000 real books are available in other rooms of the library, but the jaw-dropping main room is primarily intended for socialization and reading, according to Mashable.

The “shelves”—some of which can also serve as steps or seating—ascend upward, curving around a giant mirrored sphere. Together, these elements resemble a giant eye, prompting visitors to nickname the attraction “The Eye of Binhai,” reports Newsweek. In addition to its dramatic main auditorium, the 36,000-square-foot library also contains reading rooms, lounge areas, offices, and meeting spaces, and has two rooftop patios.

Following a three-year construction period, the Tianjin Binhai Library opened on October 1, 2017. Want to visit, but can’t afford a trip to China? Take a virtual tour by checking out the photos below.

A general view of the Tianjin Binhai Library
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People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
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A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A woman taking pictures at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
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A man visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A woman looking at books at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

[h/t Newsweek]

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