QUIT: Projects I Don’t Actually Care About (With Apologies to David Foster Wallace)

[Part of my mission to “live deliberately” involves ruthlessly cutting out anything that saps my time, energy or money to no good end. I’m calling these things my “Quits,” and this is one of the many items that have found themselves on my Quits List.]


The mammoth book Infinite Jest has been sitting on my coffee table for many months now, doing nothing more than serving as a conversation piece and a constant reminder of my own failure.

I feel like I really ought to read this book. I feel like I should like it. But for the life of me, I just can’t get into it. At all. And I feel awful about that.

I honestly did want to read it in the beginning. But since then I’ve deteriorated into the hopeless state of wanting to want to read it. The book has become a guilt trip, lingering in the forefront of my otherwise happy living room and shaming me for my lack of self-discipline.

It’s just silly, really. I’m an adult now. I don’t have to read anything I don’t want to. So why do I feel so bad about this?

Self-Induced Guilt Trips & The Ridiculousness Thereof

Because I used to be an English major, a really overachieving one, who could burn through full novels in the course of a day whether she cared for them or not. Because the former Overachiever Me likes to berate Post-College Me for not challenging herself enough. Because Post-College Me has let herself have it pretty easy in a number of ways, so she tries assigning herself projects she thinks will make her a more well-rounded and impressive person, even though secretly she has no interest in them whatsoever. [See: the Great Wedding Scrapbook Failure of 2008-present, in which an actual scrapbook has yet to produced, although I’ve managed to collect lots of nifty scrapbooking accessories in the hopes that they would inspire me to get started.]

I knew that taking on Infinite Jest would be a project. It’s around 1,100 pages long, has almost 400 footnotes, and is the size of a standard infant (see photo at top). But it was written by David Foster Wallace, a writer I enjoy so much I thought that even if the book felt like work at first, eventually I’d get so into it I’d start devouring pages. When I realized I wasn’t getting into it, and it definitely felt like work, I still thought it was worth reading because it would be “good for me.” I would feel proud when I’d finished it. It would mark me as a serious literary reader. It would be an impressive achievement to brag about to…whoever you’d brag to about your serious literary achievements? (I guess I didn’t thoroughly think that one through.)

Well, I was wrong. I’ve owned this book for nearly a year, and I haven’t managed to get more than a dozen pages into it. (Plus several pages of footnotes, if I want to boost my numbers a smidge.) It’s time to admit defeat. More importantly, it’s time to stop feeling bad about admitting defeat.

Who Am I Trying to Impress, Anyway?

It’s time for me to sit Overachiever Me down and tell her the truth: I’m never going to live up to her expectations. I’m never going to be a Renaissance Woman, and there’s really no need for me to try. Maybe her mindset made sense when I was trying to bulk up my resume for college applications, but now I’m just trying to live a life that matters more. If I can just accomplish the things that really matter to me, I’ll be a pretty successful (and happy) little Cordelia. Anything extra I take on, just for the sake of taking it on, is only going to get in the way.

Maybe in a few years, I’ll revisit Infinite Jest and something will click. I’m holding onto it in case it does, because my tastes could always change. But I’m taking it off the coffee table in the meantime, because I don’t need to impress anyone anymore—myself included. (Tweet!) And that freakin’ book is a pain to dust around.

May the spirit of David Foster Wallace forgive me. I tried.

Image: Bart Everson / Flickr

Never miss a post! Sign up here and get a free copy of Your Guide to Calling It Quits.

  • Clare

    Found you via your wonderful guest post over at Punch Debt in the Face and I must say, I LOVE YOUR BLOG.

    Adding you to the reader!

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      Thank you, I had a ton of fun doing that post. I’m so glad you’re reading!

  • 2blu2btru

    I so have a bunch of scrapbooking things right now in hopes I’ll have the time to chronicle my almost three year relationship–I have chop sticks, movie stubs, all kinds of things, yet I haven’t even bought a scrapbook yet. How do we get sucked into these things? I do hope my scrapbook gets made, though. 😀 Good for you, giving yourself permission to get rid of tasks that don’t make you happy–I just finished a book I thought I should read as a graduate of English Literature that was more for being literary than enjoyment. I want that time back now.

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      I can’t tell you the number of books I feel I should read now just because I never read them in school. But I can guarantee I’ll probably feel the same way you do–wondering why I spent the time doing that when I could have done something else. We only have so much time, so why not spend it doing things you’re really into? (Although I have to admit I too still wish I would get around to my scrapbook. Maybe I’ll put it on the shelf w/Infinite Jest and hope that some day my tastes change and I’ll be all about it.) 😛

  • Clericsdaughter

    I know the feeling of turning something that’s supposed to be an entertaining and enriching experience into a chore, then feeling guilty about it. But I’ve learned how to give myself a free pass on all the books I should have read, all the movies I should have watched and all the video games I should have played. My rationale is this: even if I started watching movies from the moment of my birth, did absolutely nothing else with my life, and then keeled over at age 100 in front of the TV screen, I still would not come even close to having seen every movie ever made that is worth seeing. This is to say nothing of all the movies that aren’t worth seeing, or other forms of media, like books.

    Having every experience worth having is impossible. Better to just admit it, and do the things you like to do. There’s no shame in never having been to Venice or never having learned to dance, when instead you’ve been to Portugal or learned to cook. I quash the impulse to be sheepish when I admit to someone that I’ve never read Don Quixote. Such things are useless negativity.

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      I like your way of looking at it. It’s a form of practicing appreciation–to be happy about the things you’ve been able to do rather than beating yourself up over the things you haven’t accomplished. I definitely need to learn to look at things from the positive angle like that.

  • Jamie

    If you decide to “quit” your scrapbooking project, I’ll gladly take it on for you! I love scrapbooking!

    And where do you find your photos for the blog? The baby next to the mammoth book was too perfect!

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      I’m sure you’d do a much better job at the scrapbook than me! You’ve always been crafty. Meanwhile I can never get started because I know whatever I wind up making isn’t going to be nearly as great as it looked in my head.

      The pic, surprisingly, just came from a general Google images search for images that could be reused. It was one of the first ones that came up. Apparently the photographer was trying to show off his baby’s intelligence by showing his preference for impressive literature. I’ve gotta say, that baby’s more ambitious than I am, because I give up on that book! 😛

  • Le sigh. Know the feeling. I’m constantly taking on new projects because 1) I can’t say no and 2) if I did say no, I’d be totally letting myself down (not so much even the person asking for the favor).

    Maybe I’m not superwoman? Nay, that can’t be it! 🙂

    Loved the blog!
    -Bridget and the Girls with Prius Envy

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      No, no. You *are* superwoman–but a superwoman knows what things are not worth wasting her super time on. 😀

  • A.J. O'Connell

    A couple times a year I put something on my bedside table that I’d like to want to read. And then, after I dust it a few times, I shamefacedly slip it back onto the shelf. The latest duster is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera.”

    I have this nightmare that someday, I’m going to be sitting at a table full of literary types that I really want to impress and they will have an in-depth conversation about GGM’s work and all I’ll have to contribute is “Well, ah. I didn’t really get into that ‘Cholera’ book,” and they’ll all laugh into their absinthe at me.

    Anyhow. I totally love your blog. You’re a fantastic writer.

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      Thank you! If they want to laugh into their absinthe, I say let them! Chances are, there are plenty of big fancy books *they* never felt like reading either.

      At least you remove your book of shame after a few dustings. I usually let mine linger many many weeks past their due. To freedom, for us both! 😛

  • sylvietoldyouso

    Ohhh, I sooo agree. I finish maybe one out of every five books I start. I get bored, I get fidgety, I’m seeing the words but hearing shopping lists and thinking of other things I could be doing.. I’ve always put that down to laziness, but now I can officially say it’s because I don’t want to waste my life on anything that isn’t entertaining – thanks!

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      That’s right! You shouldn’t feel bad about not finishing something that doesn’t call to you. You’ve only got so much time, you know?

  • I love this! This is something I have been working on too. On to conquering my big rocks first.

    Stephen Covey talks about this in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He says that so many people get caught up in “quadrant 2” activities like laundry, chores, everyday stuff, that they never get to what the actually want to accomplish.

  • I read “Infinite Jest” when I was in the Peace Corps, and had PLENTY of free time on my hands. I was warned when it was loaned to me that it’s slow going until page 400. And it was! So many endnotes that made no sense, a dozen plotlines that were disconnected and made no sense, SO MUCH DETAIL and I had only a tenuous grasp of what was going on. And then I hit page 400, everything started to come together, and it was like a snowball rolling downhill — I couldn’t put it down!

    Does this mean you have to force yourself through the first 400 pages? No. But it is a little bit of perspective — if you’re around page 350, maybe you want to give it a little more time. But if you’re on page 100, I say drop it like a week-old fish. *smile*

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      I’m glad to know it picks up eventually–I do still want to it again at some point, just maybe some time when I’m better able to give it the attention it needs. Right now, it’s just another project on my To Do list, which is no way to treat a book. Hopefully some day I’ll be able to pick it up again and hit that pick-up spot you found. Until then, though, consider it dropped. 😛

  • “I don’t need to impress anyone anymore—myself included”

    Amen sister 🙂

  • I read Infinite Jest thirteen years ago and distinctly remember it just as archiegrrl stated: slow for nearly a third of the book and then I couldn’t put it down. I lived on scrambled eggs and cereal because I didn’t want to take a break to cook. That said, my life is not better because I read it.

    You won’t miss out on anything should you decide not to read it. Except for a fantastic suicide scene. If you care to know about that, I’ll be happy to share.

  • I love this entry. I have a friend that sets due date for herself for things like scrapbooking then beats herself up when she does not get it done in time. I say, there are plenty of people out there ready to tell us we are not meeting their standards…we don’t need to join their ranks against ourself.

  • Jamie T

    OH MY GOD!!  Me too!  I mean, I couldn’t get into Infinite Jest, either, and I really really tried.  I even took it on a PLANE, that’s how hard I tried.  I refuse to feel guilty about not finishing it, though.  Totally, blatantly, REFUSE!!

  • Great post. I turned my 13 year old daughter onto your site after reading the “What would my 10 year old self have thought of me.” Keep up the great writing.

    I instituted the “you can only buy one book at a time” rule at the bookstore, as anything not read immediately tends to languish for a while then get donated (unread) to the library. Only exception is vacation trash beach reads, where 2-3 purchases are mandatory. 

    I’m pretty sure I had a copy of Infinite Jest around and then I read two footnotes one November and gave it away at a White Elephant party.

    •  Thanks so much for the recommendation (and kind words)!

      I absolutely love your white elephant idea.  My husband’s family has one every Christmas, and they’ve given us some horrible things in the past.  Since they’re not really readers to begin with, I just may wrap my (VERY lightly used) copy of Infinite Jest up and see what happens.  It would be such a nice, heavy present to pick up…and then…hilarious facial expressions ensue.  😛

  • Rob F.

    It makes me think of the way people tell their kids, “But it’s good for you!” As if somehow that simple bolt of reason is going to transmogrify an unpleasant taste / texture into some sort of noble endeavour of health in the youngster’s mind.

    Nowadays, I’m coming to a similar conclusion to you: There’s doing things that are good for us and then there’s doing things that are all about making us into people we aren’t and don’t by nature want to be.

    Oh – and I have a book like that, too. Helen Lowe’s The Gathering of the Lost. It’s just not firing for me. Worse still, it’s a review pile book, so yet more guilt there.

    • I love Gretchen Rubin (of Happiness Project fame)’s mantras: “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like” and “Just because something makes someone else happy doesn’t mean it will make ME happy.”

      I used to have all these ideas of things I *ought* to be doing to make myself into a more well-rounded person, blah, blah, blah…But the truth is, I just need to make myself the most fully realized ME I can. There’s no point in wasting time on things that just aren’t doing it for you….Life’s too short as it is!

  • PilotFire

    I know this is an older post, but I couldn’t resist the David Foster Wallace reference. While some folks may not feel Infinite Jest is life-changing, his Harpers article Tense Present is. It’s a lot shorter too, and hilarious, which makes it readable in a long sitting, and as a writer, reading it changed the way I write, which for me, is life changing. If you can find it scanned from the magazine, not just the text, it’s so much better with the hilarious huge footnotes, and the complimentary graphics. Hm.. where is that link? Oh, and thanks for this article. I just purged my pile of books down to only 10 I haven’t read yet.