The Guilty Party

Monday, September 22, 2008

You Gotta Go Find the Good Stuff

At the age of 53, the death of an accomplished person in his or her 30's or even 40's gets my attention in a way it never could have earlier in my life. A few months ago, courtesy of YouTube, I was made aware of Professor Randy Pausch and his "Last Lecture". Not long ago I purchased the book that expands on the material from the lecture. I highly recommend both experiences, they will put you in touch with a man who had an open hearted, full-throttle approach to life who obviously had an enormously positive impact on many, many people. Professor Pausch died of pancreatic cancer July 25th of this year. He was 47 years old.

And just over a week ago we lost another intensely intelligent man, but this time not to a disease of the body, but one of the soul. I believe that David Foster Wallace fought his battle with as much courage as Professor Pausch.

For some reason we receive "Entertainment Weekly" magazine. Don't know why, we didn't subscribe to it, they haven't sent us a bill and if they did we probably wouldn't pay it. Or maybe we would. Amidst all the Why Should Anyone With an Iota of Intelligence Care coverage and What's In/What's Out sort of nonsense, nearly every issue has had at least one or two articles or columns worthy to be called Journalism. The latest issue that came unbidden in the mail, featuring the lovely but ridiculously posed Anne Hathaway on the cover, has a thoughtful, appreciative, insightful remembrance of writer David Foster Wallace, who just over a week ago took his own life. He was 46 years old.

My exposure to his writing had been limited to a couple of unsuccessful attempts to read his novel Infinite Jest. I asked for it for a Christmas present several years ago and my in-laws obliged. But I couldn't get past the first couple hundred pages of what EW magazine describes as "this 1079 page doorstop" that "might fairly be called this generation's Moby Dick or Gravity's Rainbow", two other masterpieces of literature that had confounded my tries at, if not enjoyment at least intellectual appreciation. The result? In the ensuing years whenever I saw the name David Foster Wallace attached to any book or essay I gave the work a pass.

That turns out to have been a poor choice on my part. Prompted by the article in EW, which stated that while his fiction "inspired equal part exhilaration and exasperation" his non-fiction "was hilariously accessible" I Googled Wallace's commencement speech to the 2005 graduates of Kenyon College. It was easy to find.

Wall Street Journal transcription.

Here is just a bit of it:

I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about "teaching you how to think" is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: "Learning how to think" really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

Mr. Wallace did not paint a pretty, or perhaps I should say deceptively rosy, picture of the life those graduates had to look forward to, but he gave them a valuable tool to help them through. He shone a light on the value, the necessity, of choosing. His novel may have been beyond me but in this one brief speech/essay I can see that though he was a man burdened with the clear-eyed perception that practically forced him to mourn the human condition, yet he also saw, and more importantly was willing and able to articulate, a way to a better world, one person at a time.

It is an undeniable tragedy that he was unable to draw enough strength and hope from the truths he himself had so aptly expressed. I thank him for his work, which I will delve into with fresh enthusiasm and increased awareness. And thanks to "Entertainment Weekly" magazine for alerting me to the benefits to be reaped from such an effort.

The one thing that is troubling to me is the fact that neither of these extraordinary and inspiring men would have intruded themselves into my attention in such a positive way if they hadn't died. I wish I could place the blame on somebody else, the media is always good for that sort of thing, but I really don't think that will wash. Just as Wallace exhorted the Kenyon College Class of '05 to "choose what to think" it may be just as important to "choose what to spend time with". Empty intellectual and spiritual calories can be found so easily, as a matter of fact they don't have to be found at all, they are simply there, that it is so much easier to fill up on them than to seek out the real food of life.

We are what we read/listen to/watch/and even talk about.

It's a choice.

Go Ye Forth and Do Likewise.

1 comment:

Lexi said...

'Choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience' - yes, that's it.

When life was getting to me some years back (largely because, and this touches on your previous post, one of the two parents Minty started out with had wandered off) I bought a few Positive Thinking books. I found them extremely helpful.

I believe Budhism is good, too, but I'm saving that for later.

A Bit About Me

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I am a writer with a longtime interest in photography. I'm a dad, husband, photographer, and not very good guitarist. My first novel, Boomerang, is available in both paperback and ebook form at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and As a matter of fact, my second novel, The Baer Boys, can be found at exactly the same places.