David Foster Wallace’s Formative Reading List

The newly released big biography of David Foster Wallace, entitled Every Love Story is a Ghost Story and written by New Yorker scribe D.T. Max, gives a nitty-gritty look at Wallace as a troubled, tortured artist and human being. But DTM on DFW is also a primer on the growth of this particular writer — throughout the text we get mentions of the exact books Wallace read, and when, and how they formed his style. Here are just eight of them (one is a short story), along with the relevant excerpt from Max’s book. Follow along to become the next David Foster Wallace — or maybe just a little more well-read.

The Crying of Lot 49Thomas Pynchon

Max tells us, “Soon another postmodern work came his way. That book was Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Charlie McLagan, a fellow student, had turned him on to Pynchon the semester before… One day McLagan had run into Wallace and [Mark] Costello discussing One Hundred Years of Solitude and tossed them his copy of The Crying of Lot 49, which they promptly read. The novel is the story of Oedipa Maas, a young woman trying to uncover a centuries-old conspiracy involving a secret postal organization known as Trystero… One thing that caught Wallace’s eye about the book was the idea that to live in America was to live in a world of confusion, where meaning was refracted and distorted, especially by the media that engulf and reconfigure every gesture… Lot 49 was an agile and ironic meta-commentary, and the effect on Wallace cannot be overstated (so much so that in a later letter to one of his editors Wallace, ever nervous of his debt to the other writer, would lie and say he had not read the book). Wallace reading Pynchon was, remembers Costello, ‘like Bob Dylan finding Woody Guthrie.’”