The first time I stopped reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest I vowed to return, but I quietly doubted. I lacked faith. I picked it up because people whose opinions I valued wrote about it with admiration, but these writers-on-the-Internet were not with me while I read it, and late at night I struggled to comprehend the meaning, let alone the purpose, of a four page riff on a drug dealer’s thoughts. At least I thought that’s what it was. I can’t recall now and since I barely knew then, what does it matter?
The second time I stopped reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, I did not vow to return. I knew I would. I restarted after reading a number of Wallace’s essays, catching his tone and sense of humor. I grew attentive to his singular observations of seemingly obvious phenomenon, shaking with such laughter that I could not read him in bed for fear of waking my wife.
In that second reading I caught all the characteristics of Wallace I’d missed–that humor, that insight–and found myself willing to slog through difficult stretches for the sake of discovering what else he was offering. I had been “seduced into doing the work,” to use Wallace’s own words. I’d begun to comprehend the payoff of reading this demanding novel.
Payoff, I am learning, is vital to my reading as well as my life. I am entirely convinced that Wallace is right when he says, “the demands you make on a reader are not in and of themselves valuable; . . . demands on a reader need to serve a discernible function and there needs to be some sort of payoff.”
Discernment of payoff begins with the long-term payoff—a confidence that the result of our reading will justify our efforts. Our confidence may arise from previous experience with an author or a trustworthy recommendation. Frequently, the book itself alerts us to the worthy nature of its conclusion. In many essays, a promise is made in the thesis and delivered through its claims; with stories, even simple foreshadowing can draw us along.
No one delivers the foreshadowing of an epic and worthwhile conclusion better than Homer, who in the first pages of The Odyssey unabashedly builds our anticipation for battle: “if only he might drop from the clouds / and drive these suitors all in a rout throughout the halls.” Once we’re hooked, Homer will not permit this desire to shuffle to the back of our minds: he constantly uses dramatic irony to increase tension and our anticipation, like when Antinous famously hurls a stool at Odysseus-as-beggar, leaving Odysseus shaking “his head, / silent, his mind churning with thoughts of bloody work.” Thus the bloody work of the coming payoff never escapes our mind. Its importance builds to such a crescendo that when we experience it, it’s cathartic.
Yet ideally a reader will not have to wait until the conclusion of a book to experience a bit of payoff. I learned this through Thoreau’s Walden, a book I did not read until after I’d graduated college. With no due dates bearing down on me and a roommate with an opposite work schedule, I read it aloud, savoring the rhythm of each line by phrasing it properly and enunciating it forcefully:
I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.
Had I not read so slowly, I surely would have missed the feel of such a sentence: its parallelism and its patient rise to a climax. And in contrast to my first Thoreau encounter at age 17, I had learned to attune myself to nuances of figurative language, like when he compares our muddled understanding of reality to muck and mire a builder must dig through:
Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe . . . till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake . . .
The best rewards I received from Thoreau were not ending payments. To be sure, Walden contains those in the form of wisdom and perspective, insights that can change the way a person lives (“Simplify, simplify”); but I ultimately appreciated the ongoing payoffs, the aspects of literature one can savor even while enduring the difficulty of reading.
My ability to seize payoffs undergirds my enjoyment of literature, but I find it striking how the same notion applies to other areas of life, notably to my experience of religious faith.
In the most obvious way, one must wait for the rewards of the Christian faith—Heaven after death assumes this, and typically this realization undergirds an adherent’s initial adoption of faith.
I personally began to trust in that ending in high school. Over the course of twenty years, though, I have grown capable of spotting and appreciating the nuances of the payoff, even those available now. They tend to arise from loving God and loving my neighbor—the benefits of a faith lived out in deed. They materialize in the form of a kind word or an answered prayer, the surprising joy of a humble confession or a tearful apology. They manifest themselves in the form of a mysteriously grateful heart.
This recognition of payoff ultimately distills to trust in the author–be it the author of a book or the author of life. If a person does not trust the author to deliver a worthwhile ending, they will abandon the author and find another way to occupy their time. In my faith, I am learning to trust the author’s intentions and better interpret his work, encouraged by how frequently I recognize the ongoing payoffs of loving him. I am bold enough to believe my reading life is growing similarly, and that’s why I trust that the next time I attempt to read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, I’ll finish it.
 Wallace, David F., perf. “Interview from the Leonard Lopate Show A.” David Foster Wallace: In His Own Words. Hachette Audio, 2014. CD.
 Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1997. Print.
Art by: Fish-man