The Books In David Foster Wallace’s Library

Here’s a chance for you to peruse the personal library of David Foster Wallace, the author of Infinite Jest, the most Joycean novel since. . . well, since Joyce himself.

The University of Texas has catalogued 321 books over a range of subjects, including contemporary fiction, American culture and history, physics, and psychology. Assuming that Foster read all these books, or at least dipped into them, there was a fair amount of Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King in his soul, well-written social commentary with a left-of center bias (Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism), and a surprising number of books on mathematics, the latter of which helps to explain Wallace’s efforts to twist (and thereby explain) reality in his novels, particularly Infinite Jest.

I am not a Wallace scholar, nor even an especially-rabid fan of his work, but it seems to me that a worthy study could be made of the ways in which Wallace used his library in the creation of his fiction. By now, such work has surely been done on the academic level, in someone’s dissertation, but I mean a book for the general public. Such a book would in fact sell a few copies, and might draw more readers to Wallace’s novels.

The finest source-study I know, excellent in both the way it is written and the extent to which it accounts for the materials the author used in his creative endeavors, is John Livingston Lowes’ very old but still-valuable examination of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poetry, The Road To Xanadu. Such books can never reveal completely the creative process (and Lowes’ book, good as it is, isn’t perfect), but they can give us hints, flashes of insight, that we would not otherwise obtain.

Anyone’s library may hold interest for us, but the library of someone we know to be a writer, especially a talented writer, is a particular fascination. We know that writing is, first and foremost, excruciatingly-hard work, involving our basic skill at sentence-building. Beyond that skill, however, lies the deeper mystery we’d all like to solve for at least one writer: the mystery of the layered meaning of language, the multi-leveled associations we make in all sorts of ways with the words we use. We’d all like, just once, a definitive answer to the question we’ve asked of an author many times as we read, “How did she do that?” Looking at a writer’s library, or reading the results of someone’s study of an author’s sources, can bring us part of the way toward a satisfactory answer, but the mystery will always remain partly in place, because a writer’s library–whether it’s David Foster Wallace’s or James Joyce’s or Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s–hints not only at the sources of what he has created, but also at what he could have created but didn’t.

If that last thought seems unduly critical, then think of it in a more positive way: our books suggest only part of what we are capable of, only part of our creativity. If we are writers, we spend hours at our desks each week, carving out paths for our readers through the foothills of our imagination, when the place we really want to take them to is a vista of the mountain range we’ve been ascending through the books we’ve read. The effort to reach that vista is worth the struggle because everyone aspires to those heights. And when, in those brief moments we may be able to look down from the heights we have reached, we might learn one other thing: everyone’s library also suggests a life whose depths we cannot fathom, whose foundation we can never reach.

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2 thoughts on “The Books In David Foster Wallace’s Library

  1. That IS fascinating. I went through the first fifty or so, itching to write down some titles and authors (I’ll go back and do that). A worthwhile exercise–I wonder what OTHER writers’ libraries are available for browsing….

  2. Many others can be browsed. Do a Wikipedia search for an author you’re interested in, then go to the website of the library which houses that author’s books. Chances are, they’ve been catalogued. Or do a Google search on “author collections” or somesuch, and you should be able to find out what author’s book are where (both the books she has written and those she has read. Gotta run. Thanks for writing!

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