Author David Foster Wallace.
Steve Liss—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty
July 31, 2015

The new David Foster Wallace biopic centers around the writer’s most iconic novel, Infinite Jest, as the story is adapted from writer David Lipsky’s interviews with Wallace at the end of his press tour for the text. Yet while Infinite Jest is considered a must-read for students of contemporary literature, not everyone has the time or inclination to power through its daunting 1,079 pages.

Here’s what you can read in significantly less time before (or after) seeing Jason Segel star as the legendary writer in The End of the Tour, in theaters Friday.

Short

This Is Water.” It’s the speech that launched a thousand tattoos, Wallace’s commencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005. He offers a philosophy for resetting your default (read: egocentric) way of thinking about the world, promising, “It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.” You can read a transcript, buy the book version or listen to the original recording.

Federer as a Religious Experience.” Wallace wrote an ode to the Swiss tennis pro fresh off his 2006 win over Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon, not profiling the player but expounding on the joys of watching him in action. “The metaphysical explanation,” he says, “is that Roger Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws.”

Consider the Lobster.” Wallace visited the Maine Lobster Festival for Gourmet Magazine in 2003 (the story was published a year later) and thoroughly explored the question, “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” If you like the story, you can check out his essay collection by the same name.

The Depressed Person.” Wallace’s short story, originally published in Harper’s and later in his collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, is about a woman struggling with, yes, depression. Though the first sentence announces “the impossibility of sharing and articulating this pain,” Wallace of course finds a way to share and articulate it fluently.

Long

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. The 1997 essay collection includes treatises on television, tennis, David Lynch, the Illinois State Fair and, in the title story, cruise ships.

The Broom of the System. Wallace’s first novel, about a young woman whose great-grandmother has disappeared from her nursing home and whose cockatiel has started speaking, was published in 1987 when he was just 24.

The Pale King. His final (and unfinished) novel was published posthumously in 2011; it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. It’s long, but only half as long as Infinite Jest.

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