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What are you reading, Dr. Junker?

In the lab, Jan Philipp Junker is working on cell lineages. He is trying to understand how zebrafish repair their own hearts. In his spare time, he likes to read a lot. For our series "What are you reading right now?", the systems biologist takes us to the East Coast of the USA, to Boston. Not to the MIT, but to a milieu of tennis players and drug addicts.

David Foster Wallace: "Infinite Jest"

Literature can give us a different perspective on the world, on interpersonal relationships, and on ourselves. Infinite Jest provided all of this to me when I read it during the lockdown in spring 2020, helping me through a difficult time deprived of joy and social interactions. Infinite Jest is a modern classic – one of the most famous novels from the mid-nineties, in which David Foster Wallace imagines a near future dominated by excessive commercial entertainment and rampant drug abuse.

Dr. Jan Philipp Junker.

Much of the novel takes place in Boston at an elite tennis academy and a neighboring drug recovery center. The uniting element of the parallel plots is a videotape so ridiculously entertaining that anyone who sees it can’t stop watching it, loses interest in anything else, and dies. A fringe group of legless Québécois radicals (the “wheelchair assassins”) plan to get hold of the missing master copy of the videotape in order to use it as a terrorist weapon for a violent geopolitical coup. Infinite Jest is hilariously funny, and at times quite silly, but underneath this layer, it’s a serious book with characters and their interactions portrayed in way worthy of Dostoevsky. This contrast – exemplified by the title taken from Hamlet and the plot inspired by a Monty Python sketch (“The Funniest Joke in the World”) – is what made Infinite Jest such a compelling read to me.