William Beutler Talks with Biblioklept About Mapping David Foster Wallace’s Novel Infinite Jest

For the past few years, D.C.-based artist William Beutler has been mapping the real and fictional locations of David Foster Wallace’s giant novel Infinite Jest in a project called Infinite Atlas, a Google Maps-based guide to over 600 locations described in Infinite Jest. Beutler’s project has sprawled (appropriately) to include several dimensions, including Infinite Map (shown above), which identifies and describes 250 locations from the novel and Infinite Boston, a travel blog of sorts that documents and reflects on Beutler’s Wallace-based trip to Boston. Beutler was kind enough to talk to me about his projects over a series of emails.

Biblioklept: How did the Infinite Atlas project start?

William Beutler: I think, like a lot of long-term projects, I’d point to a few different points of inspiration. The first is just going back and reading Infinite Jest for a second time in 2009, after I’d say it went from being a favorite novel to my actual favorite novel.  I’d also become interested in infographics, I suppose as a kind of art form based on the expression of data—and what better stockpile of data than a thousand-page, encyclopedic novel? I cycled through a lot of ideas, finding that some of them had already been done before, and then finally deciding to focus on geography.

Biblioklept: How did the geography focus come about?

WB: The geography focus owes to a few different things. One is simply that I wasn’t the first to arrive at the idea of creating an infographic based on Infinite Jest, so I had to take that into consideration. Sam Potts, who is the designer of John Hodgman’s books, had released an elaborate graphic drawing connections between the various characters in the novel. I’d been considering that when his came out, but he did that pretty definitively, so I went with one oft he other. And hey, I just like maps. I started my career in political journalism, where districts are always being redrawn, and maps are always being shaded this much red or this much blue, so it was a natural focus in that regard. And there’s always been something I’ve liked about adding a layer of information to geographic features. I don’t know that I could have credibly called myself a geography enthusiast before this—but I have friends who definitely are, and even some who work with GIS professionally. They helped me figure out what I was doing.

Biblioklept: Did you consciously start using Google Maps? Was Google Maps a starting point in and of itself or just a tool?

A shot of Infinite Map in development

WB: Google Maps was probably one of the very last decisions we made. And all the web development was relatively late in the process, starting about early summer of this year. Most of the work before that was simply building the database, which lived in Google Docs for most of this research period. The decision to use Google Maps wasn’t necessarily random, although I had actually made an early conscious decision to not use it. I’d suggested Open Street Maps, partly because I like open source projects, and Foursquare had switched to it, which seemed like a noteworthy endorsement. But my developers said Google Maps was going to be less time-consuming, and less expensive, and I was willing to take this advice.

Biblioklept: Can you talk a bit about how you put the atlas together? What was your approach? How did you start?

WB: In the very early going, it was as simple and painstaking as going page-by-page through the book, scanning each one for proper nouns, and taking notes down in Google Docs. This was myself and another friend who had read the book, Olly Ruff, who is one of the credited editorial advisers. We debated what really counted as a “location”—Orin’s “Norwegian deep-tissue therapist” lives “1100 meters up in the Superstition Mountains,” overlooking Mesa-Scottsdale. So is that one location, or two?And once we realized we had so many locations, this was about the time I realized the original idea, which was just the map, was not going to be the comprehensive accounting for the novel’s locations I had imagined. Once I decided we had to explore an interactive version as well, then we had to decide which locations were just going on the map, and how many. Then we had to figure out where certain locations were actually located, and that was a considerable amount of research as well. Sometimes it was very obvious-—Harvard Square is very easy to find, but some places I didn’t even know were real until I visited Boston. We also had to figure out how to show both the scope of North America alongside the detail of central Boston, and this just took an agonizingly long time. This is where some of my friends who worked with maps for a living proved helpful. The further into this I got, the bigger of a project it kept revealing itself to be. And since the point of no return was never clear, I just kept at it, never entirely sure how long it would all take, until we actually started working with designers.

Biblioklept: How did actually visiting Boston help to inform the project?

WB: About a year into the research, I realized that I was hitting a wall with some of the local details in Boston, which has the greatest concentration of locations of anywhere in the novel. More specifically, the neighborhoods of Allston and Brighton already kind of run together, and then Wallace invented a whole new unincorporated community called Enfield, where most of the primary characters live, and its relationship to Allston-Brighton was very confusing. The trip helped me get a better sense for what was Enfield and what was Brighton, although there’s only textual support for boundary lines to the east and south.Also regarding certain locations, I knew the Brighton Marine hospital complex was the basis for Enfield Marine, and I knew that the hill behind it was where the Enfield Tennis Academy would be, if it existed, but Google Maps and Google Street View have some pretty obvious limitations. So putting boots on the ground was really the only way to be sure about some of these places. I was surprised by some things I found: there’s a “Professional Building” mentioned as being at one intersection when it’s really another, which I had no idea until I walked right up to it. And the Infinite Boston Tumblr simply couldn’t have existed without the trip, but the trip was also absolutely necessary for getting a lot of details right for Infinite Atlas and Infinite Map.

Biblioklept: How long have you been working on the Infinite Boston blog?

WB: The Boston trip was in July 2011, and the notion of doing a Tumblr travelogue to the project was probably in the back of my head at the time, but I didn’t really start thinking about seriously doing it until earlier this year. I’d been sifting through the photos—I came back with about 4,000—since then, and in the spring I started making decisions about what I had acceptable photos of, and what I had enough to write about, then I started planning the sequence in June, and putting together notes in early July. And though I had quite a few entries planned out weeks in advance to begin with, these days I’m finishing them the night before, or up to the last few minutes before publishing.

Biblioklept: The Infinite projects clearly will resonate with fans of Wallace’s novel. What do you hope they take away from your work?

Portrait of the artist

WB: I can’t begin to tell you the number of people who’ve told me they started Infinite Jest, and gave up after making it a surprisingly long way through it. One friend of mine spent the better part of a decade having read to at least page 600 before finally finishing it earlier this year. (He ended up helping out as a backup researcher.) I’ve heard it said that the book doesn’t really start coming together until about 400 pages, and it’s been much too long since I first read it for me to remember, but I know the feeling  of hopelessness that goes along with struggling early in a long novel (I’m still working myself back up to revisiting Gravity’s Rainbow and Europe Central…). I think a project like this can serve as a kind of promise to the uninitiated that there really is something here that people feel very strongly about, that it rewards the effort one must put into it. There’s much more to it than just being a hipster status symbol. And then I think it can help those who are reading it, both to confirm details they may have misread the first time or—better still—to make connections they might never have made without this kind of tool. And of course to visualize it as David Foster Wallace surely did, if they’re so inclined. That said, I’m not sure the Atlas is a resource I would have consulted when I first read the book. I tend to be very spoiler-sensitive, oftentimes purposefully going into a novel or a film or television series trying to know as little as possible. Of course, I know now that Infinite Jest can’t be “ruined” by knowing about a particular story arc, and I’m sure that others so wracked with fear over knowing that two storylines connect, so I hope they’ll find this a useful resource.

Biblioklept: I’m curious if you’ve read Houellebecq’s novel The Map and the Territory?

WB: I have not actually read any Houellebecq; I’m primarily familiar with him for various controversies, and I do remember the allegations that he had plagiarized Wikipedia for The Map and the Territory, and the possibility then that his book would be judged a Creative Commons-licensed work. Anyhow, I am familiar with the map-territory relationship as described by Alfred Korzybski, and Infinite Jest was my introduction to it. I think it’s very relevant here, not that anyone would necessarily mistake the atlas as anything but a supplement to the novel. Actually, one of my early working titles for the project was “Map / Territory,” and the website includes a kind of epigraph, taken from the Eschaton section: “The real world’s what the map here stands for!”

Biblioklept: I figured the Eschaton episode clearly resonated with your project. What sections or characters of IJ stand out as favorites to you?

WB: Believe it or not, Eschaton was one of the last location segments that I added to the Atlas. Early on we’d focused on real places where scenes actually took place, or references to North American locations that fell inside the confines of the map. And Chris Ayers of Poor Yorick Entertainment had already made a pretty nifty Eschaton infographic, so I was hesitant to do too much with that. But it became clear that we were going to take a maximalist approach, and really locate absolutely everything that could be located, so then I went through and included everything from Eschaton as best I could.If I had to name a favorite section, it might be the very last, with Gately and Fackelman holed up with Mt. Dilaudid, avoiding the wrath of Whitey Sorkin. It’s just beautifully written, and for whatever criticisms anyone might still make about the novel lacking a proper ending plot-wise, it makes perfect sense emotionally. In close contention, though, is Gately’s first chapter, about the disastrous burglary in a “wildly upscale part of Brookline” that turns his life around. It’s the first section in the story really that took my breath away—that or I was holding my breath waiting in vain for a paragraph break to exhale. Anyway, the unsurprising answer regarding my favorite character is Don Gately. He’s maybe DFW’s single greatest creation.

Biblioklept: I agree with you on Gately being Wallace’s greatest achievement—I love the sections you mention as well. I think many people who can’t get into IJ probably don’t get to that burglary/toothbrush episode quick enough.

WB: I don’t know, the number of people who have made it to halfway or further and then still give up, just speaking anecdotally, is staggering. I’ve personally given up on much shorter books, which is probably every book I’ve given up on, considering I haven’t bothered to try Imperial or some of Vollmann’s other longer stuff. Plus, it’s not like there isn’t grabby material early on: the “where was the woman who said she’d come” scene with Erdedy is very dense, but I think immediately rewarding in a way some of the Hal and Orin material up front is not. And there’s no way around the fact it’s just a months-long project in a way few novels are.

Biblioklept: Have you had any response from Wallace’s estate about your project?

WB: I haven’t, nor have I solicited any. In development on the project, I had considered reaching out to Bonnie Nadell, but I didn’t really know what I’d be asking. This wasn’t going to be the first infographic project or fan art based on the book, so I didn’t think permission was an issue. A friend had offered to put me in contact with D.T. Max, if I needed, but I didn’t want to bother him, either. The most response I’ve had is two retweets and one reblog from whomever’s running social media for Little, Brown, and it’s more than I would have asked for.

Biblioklept: Do you have another project on the horizon after this one?

WB: To be honest, I’m not even sure I’m totally done with Infinite Jest yet. I’m still writing Infinite Boston on a daily basis through the end of this month, and we’re actually putting in some further refinements on the Infinite Atlas website. Besides that, I’d been editing a very short film when I turned to focus on this, so I’d like to complete that now. And I’m sure this isn’t my last map, either.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

WB: Haha, that’s a great question. And the answer is yes. One that comes to mind in particular I found in a teacher’s lounge in the j-school at the University of Oregon, where I worked and never quite completed my journalism double major. And I don’t have it handy—I’m afraid I’ve left stolen property on a shelf at my parents’ house—but it was called something like The Declining American Newspaper and its publication date could have been no later than 1965. Even when I found it, this was still early days of the Internet. I wasn’t sure whether it was prophetic or preposterous, which is basically why I pocketed it. Less a book, more a conversation piece. Next visit, I’ll try to make partial amends by actually reading it.

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Book Shelves #18, 4.29.2012

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Book shelves series #18, eighteenth Sunday of 2012.

Lots of issues of McSweeney’s on this shelf. I abandoned The InstructionsSome Tintin omnibuses. Crumb-illustrated Kafka bio. Bookended by Will Eisner’s masterwork A Contract with God:

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A Chris Ware comic from McSweeney’s #13:

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“Neither Beast Nor Bird” (Illustrated Fable, 1887)

(From The Baby’s Own Aesop: Being the Fables Condensed in Rhyme, With Portable Morals Pictorially Pointed by Walter Crane. Engraved and Printed in Colours By Edmund Evans. 1887. Via the LOC).

Put the book in the head not on the head

(Via Disonancia ).

Studies of Embryos — Leonardo da Vinci

Siphonophorae — Ernst Haeckel

Book Shelves #5, 1.29.2012

Book shelves series #5, fifth Sunday of 2012: In which we leave the southern wing of the house where the bedrooms are and enter a formal sitting room.

Okay. So. When I started this project, it was easy to identify the rooms in the house—they were bedrooms. As we go, I’ll have to occasionally make up names for rooms, often names that don’t really fit. Our house is a 1956 ranch with some of the atomic flavor, so it’s long and rectangular and very open—rooms open up into other rooms; spaces are demarcated more by ideas of rooms and not, say, walls. The house is essentially three sections; we’ve left the first, the bedrooms, and now move into a series of rooms for living and eating and cooking and sitting. And reading. I mapped out a little route for the rest of this series, and the first stop is this mid-century LP cabinet in what I’ll call, for lack of a better term, our formal sitting room. The cabinet once held many of my records but is now filled with comic books (more on those next week).

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The books that set on top of it are coffee tablish, I suppose, and they tend to rotate, although there’s usually a stray novel or two that sets here as well. Today we’ll look at the two on top now: Penguin by Design and Atomic Ranch.

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There’s also an Emerson Wondergram record player that sets on the table; I suppose it was the iPod of its day (see one in action here).

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Atomic Ranch is my wife’s, although I don’t really make such distinctions when it comes to books. We lived for years in a bungalow and she amassed books dedicated to craftsman homes during that time; when we moved to the ’50s ranch, she wanted this:

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Penguin by Design is essential for anyone who drools over beautiful modern book covers.

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My pics are lousy—sorry—but just a few editions I’d love to pick up one day:

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Next week, we’ll look at some of the comic books inside the cabinet.

Book Acquired, 8.10.11

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I don’t know if this one actually counts; Atomic Ranch is a book my wife ordered (not that my wife doesn’t count). But I’ve started to (at least try to) document all the books that come into the house, so, yeah, here’s Atomic Ranch, which is about 1950s ranch homes, which I guess my wife bought because we bought such a home earlier this year.

The History of Science Fiction — Ward Shelley

(Via, via).

A Typographic Anatomy Lesson

Check Out This Amazing Fore-edge Painting

 

Jonathan Safran Foer Talks About His New Book, Tree of Codes

Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, Tree of Codes, is a cut-up — or cut-out, rather — of Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles. More here.

“Three Figures and a Dog” — Roberto Ransom (A Single Sentence Animation by Andre da Loba)

Andre da Loba animates a sentence from Roberto Ransom’s “Three Figures and a Dog.” Published in Electric Literature No. 4. Here’s the first paragraph–

He liked to be in the chapel at dawn, and also in the afternoon when something similar, though not identical, occurred. For that to happen, he had to leave home when his wife got up to milk the cow. He’d finally wake himself up by putting his hand into the bucket next to the well and wiping his face. He usually carried a loaf of bread, a piece of onion, and sometimes a little cheese, wrapped in a handkerchief. He’d leave his brushes, pencils, paints, and other tools in a corner of the chapel, behind some stones that hadn’t been used during its construction. He didn’t paint at that hour. He was waiting for the right color. He’d observe the sky and mix paints in a small clay vessel, smudging them with his finger, measuring quantities, adding water or oil or, on one occasion, wine. He imagined that if the wine was his blood and the blue of the sky he was seeking was the Virgin’s color, and the Virgin was his mother and if he and the Virgin were of the same blood, then maybe…

“Riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s” — Stephen Crowe Illustrates Finnegans Wake

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At Wake In Progress, Stephen Crowe has given himself the daunting task of illustrating James Joyce’s novel/linguistic black hole Finnegans Wake. It’s pretty cool stuff, and we love projects like these (see also: Six Versions of Blood Meridian and One Drawing for Every Page of Moby-Dick). Crowe’s site makes an interesting if different companion for the ongoing project at Ulysses “Seen.” Good luck to Stephen–keep them coming! (and thanks to @RhysTranter for sharing). More images–

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Page 8 - Stephen Crowe

Page 19 - Stephen Crowe

Page 16 - Stephen Crowe

Better Book Titles

Check out the frank and funny images at Better Book Titles (via @MelvilleHouse). A few of our favorites–

Rift — James Jean

James Jean’s Rift looks pretty cool. More here.

Penguin Books Turns 75

Penguin Books turns 75 today. Happy birthday! More here. There’s a great Penguin Books sci-fi cover gallery here. If you are the sort of philistine who doesn’t dig Penguin’s iconic covers, you can order your own blank art paper quality covered books here.

Chris Ware’s Rejected Fortune Cover

Cartoonist Chris Ware’s rejected cover for Fortune magazine. Guess his satire was too sharp. Via RW730:

“Books in the Age of the iPad” — Craig Mod

In his recent essay, “Books in the Age of the iPad,” Craig Mod distinguishes between “Formless” and “Definite” content:

Formless Content is is unaware of the container. Definite Content embraces the container as a canvas. Formless content is usually only text. Definite content usually has some visual elements along with text. Much of what we consume happens to be Formless. The bulk of printed matter — novels and non-fiction — is Formless.

Mod argues that the rise of e-readers like the Kindle and (presumably) the iPad are harbingers of a new age in reading, where both formless and, now, definite content might be readily (and easily) displayed. He makes a brash judgment:

The convenience of digital text — on demand, lightweight (in file size and physicality), searchable — already far trumps that of traditional printed matter.

Really? On demand? For whom? “On demand” here presupposes a number of conditions, first and foremost, that each person who wishes to enjoy this new medium has the economic means to do so. The projected retail cost of the iPad is currently $500, a price that does not include monthly ISP fees, let alone the prices of e-books and other e-texts. The Kindle retails now for about half the price of the iPad. Although these prices will certainly fall over time, it is difficult to imagine that the “convenience of digital text” will trump equitable access to “traditional printed matter” — particularly for families with multiple children (at least any time soon).

Mod makes some good points about the future of printed, physical books in the age of e-readers (or, the iPad, a device he seems to think will normalize the medium):

I propose the following to be considered whenever we think of printing a book:

  • The Books We Make embrace their physicality — working in concert with the content to illuminate the narrative.
  • The Books We Make are confident in form and usage of material.
  • The Books We Make exploit the advantages of print.
  • The Books We Make are built to last.

The result of this is:

  • The Books We Make will feel whole and solid in the hands.
  • The Books We Make will smell like now forgotten, far away libraries.
  • The Books We Make will be something of which even our children — who have fully embraced all things digital — will understand the worth.
  • The Books We Make will always remind people that the printed book can be a sculpture for thoughts and ideas.

Anything less than this will be stepped over and promptly forgotten in the digital march forward.

Goodbye disposable books.

Hello new canvases.

Books as aesthetic, durable objects — great idea. But books as relics, as things to recall the smell of “now forgotten, far away libraries”? Really? Libraries function as an important space in communities that transcend the mediums of information in those libraries. It’s almost downright scary to posit some kind of project-utopia where a library becomes “digitized.” Also — and again, much of what Mod suggests here is great — but also, who are “our children” who “have fully embraced all things digital”? In the current geopolitical climate, Mod’s line of thinking can only realistically apply to “First World” countries. Even in our own beloved United States, first among the “First World,” we have difficulty feeding all of our children or funding their educations. E-readers like the iPad or Kindle could presumably do much to ameliorate the burgeoning education gap, but recent efforts haven’t gained much momentum or praise.

It’s not that I disagree with (what I perceive to be) Mod’s overall thesis — that the iPad and successive e-readers will revolutionize how we read, access, and store information. I do, however, think that his rosy-toned enthusiasm has led to a number of blind spots in his article. Why should e-readers eliminate libraries? What, exactly, are “disposable books”? Who will have access to these “new canvases,” and in what capacity? Why the implicit presumption that digital storage of media is fail safe, easier than current methods, and more permanent?

Finally, my biggest problem with the piece is the simple assumption that any e-reader could be more comfortable than a paperback book. Mod addresses arguments like mine:

When people lament the loss of the printed book, this — comfort — is usually what they’re talking about. My eyes tire more easily, they say. The batteries run out, the screen is tough to read in sunlight. It doesn’t like bath tubs.

Mod responds to these arguments:

Important to note is that these aren’t complaints about the text losing meaning. Books don’t become harder to understand, or confusing just because they’re digital. It’s mainly issues concerning quality. One inevitable property of the quality argument is that technology is closing the gap (through advancements in screens and batteries) and because of additional features (note taking, bookmarking, searching), will inevitably surpass the comfort level of reading on paper.

While Mod’s point of meaning vs. quality (what I’d refer to as readability) is certainly right, his assumption that technology “will inevitably surpass the comfort level of reading on paper” is wholly unfounded and unsupported. It’s exactly the kind of teleological claim we see too often about technology — that technology always progresses to an inevitable, good, and superior end point. Still, Apple can feel free to send me an iPad and I’ll be sure to test my own assumptions on the issue, and redress them here if need be.