David Foster Wallace’s Love of Language Revealed by the Books in His Personal Library


“I didn’t think much of Infi­nite Jest in the begin­ning,” writes Jacque­line Munoz, librar­i­an at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Austin’s Har­ry Ran­som Cen­ter. But as she read fur­ther into Wal­lace’s seem­ing­ly “wordy and unfo­cused” land­mark nov­el, the author’s mind, and how it dealt with “how unfor­giv­ing it is to be human” and how dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions “strug­gle inter­nal­ly with the same issues,” won her over: “I thought, this man is a genius; I want to know him bet­ter.” Many of us Wal­lace fans har­bor the same desire, and now that the Ran­som Cen­ter has acquired and made avail­able a con­sid­er­able chunk of the writer’s heav­i­ly anno­tat­ed library, a few more of us can. The books in Wal­lace’s library, as Munoz puts it, reveal “a philoso­pher, math­ophile, physics buff, gram­mar­i­an, pop-fic­tion read­er, lit pro­fes­sor, cre­ative writer, and spir­i­tu­al seek­er,” and Maria Bustil­los, writ­ing in The Awl back in 2011, traced Wal­lace’s seem­ing­ly strange but ulti­mate­ly mean­ing­ful pres­ence of titles like The Spir­i­tu­al­i­ty of Imper­fec­tion and The Dra­ma of the Gift­ed Child.


Bustil­los’ explo­ration of Wal­lace’s pro­cliv­i­ty for self-help brings in a vol­ume writ­ten by Sal­ly Fos­ter Wal­lace, David’s moth­er: a gram­mar text­book called Prac­ti­cal­ly Pain­less Eng­lish, “the only book of Eng­lish gram­mar I know of that can hold a can­dle to the works of the Fowler broth­ers.” Her book has a place in the Ran­som Cen­ter’s col­lec­tion, and any­one who’s read Wal­lace’s Harper’s arti­cle “Tense Present” may smile at its pres­ence, remem­ber­ing sto­ries of the songs about sole­cisms and oth­er lin­guis­tic mis­us­es his fam­i­ly would sing on car trips. Osten­si­bly a review of Bryan A. Gar­ner’s A Dic­tio­nary of Mod­ern Amer­i­can Usage, a copy of which also made it into the col­lec­tion, the piece reveals Wal­lace’s thor­ough­go­ing inter­est in the mechan­ics, well-func­tion­ing or oth­er­wise, of Eng­lish. You can fol­low the thread through sev­er­al oth­er titles in his pos­ses­sion, includ­ing Albert Baugh­’s A His­to­ry of the Eng­lish Lan­guage, John D. Ram­age’s Rhetoric: A User’s Guide, all the way to Peter Lade­foged’s Ele­ments of Acoustic Phoe­net­ics. And when you’re done, you will want to keep fol­low­ing the thread a lit­tle fur­ther by check­ing out our pre­vi­ous post: David Fos­ter Wal­lace Breaks Down Five Com­mon Word Usage Mis­takes in the Eng­lish Lan­guage.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

30 Free Essays & Sto­ries by David Fos­ter Wal­lace on the Web

David Fos­ter Wal­lace: The Big, Uncut Inter­view (2003)

David Fos­ter Wallace’s 1994 Syl­labus

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­lesA Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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