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A David Foster Wallace Primer

If you’re already a David Foster Wallace fan we’re guessing that you won’t need our help pointing out that tomorrow marks the publication of his posthumous novel, The Pale King. But if you’ve been following the various reviews, remembrances, and commentary that Wallace has inspired over the past few months with a curiosity and mild puzzlement — sure the guy seems great, but a 600-plus page unformed novel about taxes? — we’ve got your back. Likewise if you once picked up a copy of Infinite Jest but found yourself drifting away after the first 200 pages … well, we’ve been there. Brevity is not one of the man’s many virtues. But an incredible eye for detail, a gut-busting sense of humor, and the ability to tell a story so engrossing that you don’t want it to end? Those DFW has. So for the uninitiated, the intimidated, or the intrepid reader, we’ve compiled a guide to reading Wallace’s work.

A Glossary of Wallace-isms

We know it sounds schoolmarmish, but there are a couple of things you’ll want to have around before you plunge into Wallace’s collection. The first is a dictionary (or a tab open to dictionary.com, if that’s your style). Even if you aced every vocab quiz in high school, you still might want to have a reference guide handy when Wallace busts out ones like “digitate” and “azygous”. Also handy: having two bookmarks around. This becomes especially crucial with the endnotes in Infinite Jest, but it’s useful to have for the footnotes in some of Wallace’s stories too. Since the abbreviations Wallace uses can be both rapidfire and something out of a mathematical proof and/or legal document, we’ve compiled a brief list of frequently used Wallace terms below:

1-P first person

e.g. for the sake of example

N.B. nota bene, note well

pace used to indicate disagreement with a source

q.v. used to refer to a phrase that should be looked up earlier in the article/book

[sic] any errors are reproduced from transcription, also used to draw attention to a quoted author’s mistake

SNOOT grammar/usage fanatic, “the sort of person whose idea of Sunday fun is to hunt for mistakes in the very prose of Safire’s column”

sub. below

SWE Standard Written English

w/r/t with regard to

viz. namely, that is to say

yr. your

Image credit: Suzy Allman for The New York Times

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