Thursday, September 18, 2008

Surrounded by the crass and the mediocre

Why would the death of an obscure (to most) writer matter so much to those that read him, or better, knew him on some personal level? Possibly because he saw the world like few others, and uniquely captured events and people in his writing. There are fewer and fewer like him.

We live in a world where technology has put just about everything at our fingertips, and at the same time, made it far too easy for us to turn off the parts of our brains that ought to be functioning at the highest of levels. Like the din of a crowded convention center, the incessant noise of all things internet requires that we figuratively shout to be noticed—by appealing to the superficial or pushing other people’s buttons—with hate, the latest flavor of the month, pop culture icons, or relying on shock value—none of them building on a sense of community, compassion for others, or finding value in intelligent dialogue.

David Foster Wallace was someone that I could turn to as a reader that still enjoys books that make me think, consider, and ponder.

I knew his nonfiction, rather than his fiction, and found that when he wrote about tennis, and his adventures as a regionally ranked player, as a teen, in many ways, it mirrored some of my own experiences as a baseball player. This was one personal connection and quality that helped me identify with this writer, who I never got to meet in person.

Reading Wallace made me aware that he was someone that was operating on various levels, as well as a much higher plane than I was. It was obvious that he was exceptionally gifted, even though at the time, I didn’t know he had graduated from Amherst, summa cum laude, with a dual major in philosophy and English. I later found out that he had a mathematical mind, which was obvious reading “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” about his teenage experiences playing tennis in the wind tunnel known as the Midwest. This was one of the essays/arguments in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

Despite his obvious intellectual gifts, and propensity to footnote, I personally found his style readable, and rarely tedious, like I find, say, Faulkner, or other literary heavyweights. Maybe that’s a lousy comparison, as Foster would have considered himself post-modern as a writer. My point is that most (not necessarily all) of his nonfiction is accessible, and I think readers would find enjoyable, albeit not the typical dumbed-down, non-intellectual visual junk food fodder that today’s readers seem to clamor for, and the shelves of the corporate bookstores are chock full of.

From the back cover of the book jacket of ASFTINDA, the NY Times Book Review blurb captures DFW’s genius well:

David Foster Wallace is a dynamic writer of extraordinary talent, one unafraid to tackle subjects large or small, ever willing to experiment, he lays his artistic self on the line with his incendiary use of language, at times seeming to rip the mundane and unusual from their moorings, then setting them down anew, freshly described.

Life goes on, and most of us, yours truly included, spends more time than we (I ) care to consider with the day-to-day mundane, firmly attached to the moorings of a world that seems to be spinning madly out of control. Even worse in my opinion, a world where writers like DFW have been devalued and pushed to the fringes.

Save your false sense of the historical, and thoughts about how our nation has always had an anti-intellectual streak, or that the “good ole’ days” weren’t so good. I’m not waxing nostalgic in my thoughts on Mr. Wallace, I’m clearly offering my own tribute to the things that were good, valuable, and even necessary about him as a writer, and according to many of the things that have been written by those who knew him, like here, as a person.

If you think that we’re living in some sort of golden age, here in the first decade of the 21st century, I’d have to say that you’re sadly mistaken and need of some intellectual stimulation. I’d suggest Wallace’s two books of essays, ASFTINDA, and ">Consider The Lobster: And Other Essays as worthwhile starting points.

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