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David Foster Wallace’s library: Dog ears, coffee rings, duct tape, and heavy markings

By Jacqueline Muñoz

Books from David Foster Wallace's library. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Books from David Foster Wallace's library. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Jacqueline Muñoz, librarian at the Ransom Center, cataloged more than 300 books from David Foster Wallace’s archive. Here, she writes about her experience working with the collection and her personal response to Wallace’s work.

I didn’t think much of Infinite Jest in the beginning. My impression of David Foster Wallace’s writing was that it was wordy and unfocused with some seriously flawed characters. Gradually I settled into his use of language, which is quite impressive, and finally at the Boston AA section, I was hooked—certainly on the plot, but even more so on the man behind the prose. All at once, it was clear the length of the story and ambiguity of the characters was Wallace’s vehicle for articulating how unforgiving it is to be human, and how, though various generations may seem vastly different on the surface, they struggle internally with the same issues. I thought, this man is a genius; I want to know him better. So, I was thrilled to find out the Ransom Center would be acquiring his archive, especially given the description about the extensive annotations to his books.

Even then, I was not prepared for what we received. Of the more than 300 titles in his collection, there are maybe 10 or 15 that are not annotated—not simply with underlined passages but ample and personally revealing margin notes. The library basically falls into two categories: novels/stories he taught in his literature classes and books for use in research and self-analysis. Finishing Infinite Jest, I came away with a lot of questions about the origin of some of the characters, as well as theories about the story itself. I think the items in his library, which feel very much like journal entries the way he marked them up, provide some answers.

Looking at his collection, one can see that Wallace was undoubtedly a highly intelligent man: a philosopher, mathophile, physics buff, grammarian, pop-fiction reader, lit professor, creative writer, and spiritual seeker. He didn’t merely own these books; he digested them. Cover to cover there are handwritten notes and vocabulary words; he dog-eared pages, annotated the most pertinent passages, and even used the tomes as coffee mug coasters and phone conversation doodle pads. Through his books, one gains a sense of him on a personal, human level—his struggles, unpretentiousness, sense of humor, diligent research skills, and devotion to masterful writing. It’s almost as if he’s still teaching and sharing.

Comments

Steve Munday
Reply

A brilliant and talented young man who self destructed, but left a legacy.

Thank you for sharing your experience!

Jacqueline Muñoz
Reply

Brilliant to the core! I hope you get a chance to look at some of his stuff. Thanks for the comment, Steve.

Oswaldo Jimenez
Reply

An enviable task: cataloguing Mr. Wallace’s collection. He was no mere bibliophile, but a true scholar; evident in his “tools.” Mr. Wallace’s audacity in using his intellect and writing to help us attempt to become decent human beings is admirable. I hope the vision of the HRC might help us understand his genius ( “The desire of the moth for the star”)

Jacqueline Muñoz
Reply

Nicely put.

Clark Comstock
Reply

I must admit to a fair amount of jealousy. I was lucky enough to have Mr. Wallace (he made us call him Dave; there was absolutely no pretentiousness with him) as a Prose professor when I was in college. He is one of the best teachers I’ve had, and he continues to influence me in my own teaching. What a fascinating man.

Dederoff
Reply

Thank you UTexas for acquiring and preserving this collection. Cheers.

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