I first read Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men about ten years ago and hated it. But I was reintroduced to him, as many were, when I saw a video of his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address. It, I believe, captures in example what Every Love Story captures in biography—a man who was brilliant, insightful, humorous, kind, caring, self deprecating, hyper-self-aware and generous.
Much has been written about David Foster Wallace’s significance as an author. He helped usher fiction out of the post-modern and into the post-post-modern, or whatever followed post-modern. This book provides insight into the stories and struggles behind Wallace’s work.
Max makes few judgments and neither sensationalizes Wallace’s life nor evangelizes for the church of Wallace. When it comes to the more tabloid-friendly topics, Max errs on the side of blandness, something Wallace would have appreciated. Wallace himself downplayed his drug and alcohol problems, reckless love life and bouts of severe depression—all the characteristics the media likes in their artists. He wasn’t embarrassed of his shortcomings as much as he was embarrassed by the triteness of them. As he said in his 1997 interview with Charlie Rose,* “It sounds like some kind of Hollywood thing to do. ‘Oh, he’s out of rehab and back in action.’”
Although he was a brilliant man, what I find most likable in Wallace’s character is how generous he was with his students, awarded several times for his dedication and loved for his sometimes childlike enthusiasm.
One day he put the words “pulchritudinous,” “miniscule,” “big,” and “misspelled” on the blackboard. He asked his students what the four words had in common, and, when no one knew, happily pointed out that the appearance of each was the opposite of its meaning: “pulchritudinous” was ugly, “miniscule” was big, “big” was small, and “misspelled” was spelled correctly. The students had rarely seen him so happy.
The biography also chronicles Wallace’s demons. He struggled to stay sober and drug-free, and his dependency on anti-depressants became a kind of clean-living moral dilemma. But beyond his depression, there was a deeper dissatisfaction with his public self image and his need to maintain it. It was an oppressive self-awareness that became pervasive in his writing and even more so in his life. In a letter to a friend, he wondered if he had become a “literary statue…that I want others to mistake for the real me.” He loved being loved by his fans, but he also felt “frozen by his own need to be the person others saw him as.”
Wallace ultimately lost his battle with depression, committing suicide in 2008. He was such a harsh critic and so hyper-self-aware that it’s not hard to imagine him complaining of the predictability of his own end. It is unsatisfying, unspectacular, and Max treats it as such. With a note of bitterness, the biography ends: “This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the one he had chosen.”
Every Love Story is better as a companion to Wallace’s work than a stand-alone biography. If you’re into Wallace (I’m going through a bit of a phase myself), it’s a good read, but probably not so much if you’re looking for pulp. There are plenty of artists who enjoyed their wild celebrity lifestyle. Wallace was not one of them.
* Below is Wallace’s interview with Charlie Rose from 1997. My favorite part of that interview comes in the second part (at about 7:54) when Rose is asking Wallace about the footnotes in his book, and Wallace responds that he’s going to look pretentious.
ROSE: Stop worrying about how you’re going to look and just be.
WALLACE: I have got news for you…coming on a television show stimulates your “what am I gonna look like gland” like no other experience. You may now be such a veteran that you don’t notice it anymore. You confront your own vanity when you think about going on tv.
When my wife and I were doing our pre-marriage counseling, the priest told us that one of the most important things we could understand in our relationship was how the other person processes information. Introversion is conventionally understood as shyness, extroversion as gregariousness. But the more important aspect, we were told, was how these two different personality types like to think—quietly or out loud, thinking alone or talking through issues. This book takes that understanding quite a few steps further. Introverts not only process information by thinking alone, but they like to work alone, they like to hole up and dig in. They like to listen and think before they speak. And they find social situations draining.
What surprised me most about this book was how strongly I fit the introvert profile. I work in a profession and in a role that requires me to work in teams, conduct meetings and make presentations on a daily basis. But on Cain’s unofficial introversion quiz, I gave the “introvert” answer for 19 out of 20 questions. I prefer to work alone, quietly. I like to have my own time, my own space.
The troubling thing for introverts is that corporate America is increasingly built for extroverts. Offices are giving way to open environments. Time to solve problems in solitude is being edged out by brainstorming meetings. Business schools teach students that it’s better to speak and be wrong than to sit silently in a meeting. This all creates an environment that is difficult for introverts, who make up an estimated 1/3 of the workforce.
Cain makes the point that the success of collaboration via open-source Internet has in one critical way been misunderstood: those collaborators were not brainstorming together. They were working solo, then adding their solutions to the mix. Studies (and painful painful experience) indicate that brainstorming meetings are inefficient, and Cain explains why: ten people brainstorming in a room are rarely ten people exploring ten different solutions. More likely, there’s one person speaking about one solution, while the other nine are waiting their turn to speak.
Cain discusses ways to make the workplace friendlier for introverts—mostly by understanding and appreciating them. She discusses cultural differences in business, how Americans value confidence and bombast while many Asian cultures prefer modesty and deference. She also gets into introversion in interpersonal relationships (spouses, parent-child, etc.). I found these last bits less novel. And at times Cain makes it seem like all introverts are just quiet geniuses being held in check by loudmouth bullies. But overall, the book offers a new perspective on the importance of having a workplace that still provides opportunities for quiet contemplation as well as a culture that recognizes that the best ideas aren’t always said with the loudest voice.
This is hands-down the nerdiest book I have ever read, but man is it fun.
The year is 2044, and things have not gone so well for most people on earth, including Wade Watts. Wade, an orphan, grows up with his nasty aunt in “the stacks”—a sprawling structure made of trailers stacked on top of each other (the American trailer park meets Kowloon) in Oklahoma. But he spends the majority of his time plugged into the OASIS, an online virtual world accessed with VR goggles. In this world, he is Percival, an avatar named after one of King Arthur’s knights who searched for the Holy Grail. Like his namesake, Wade is on a quest of his own.
When James Halliday—the software tycoon who created the OASIS—dies, he leaves his entire fortune to whomever is first to find an “easter egg” hidden deep in the OASIS. He leaves a few clues to kick the contest off and, with so much at stake, it kicks off more than just a friendly game. Legions of “gunters” (short for “egg hunters”) set off on the quest to find the egg. Some band together. Others go it alone. Corporations even get into the game, with one corporation funding a massive army of searchers.
But what makes this novel so novel is that Halliday was obsessed with 1980s pop culture. So 80s video games, movies, music and commercials all play a critical role in the massive, virtual scavenger hunt. They are often parts of games within the game. What do you remember from the 80s? The show Family Ties? The video game Joust? Lyrics to that Midnight Oil hit? If you grew up in the 80s, there are pop culture references that will make you cheer out loud. Even if you weren’t into Dungeons and Dragons (I wasn’t), you can probably remember Choose Your Own Adventure. Or the movie War Games. Deep Pac-Man strategy? Cline has created a world where giant Japanese robots, light sabers, magic spells, and DeLoreans can co-exist. It is shameless in its nerdiness, and it is awesome.
Would I recommend this book to everyone? If you were born before 1965 or after 1989, maybe not. But if you spent the majority of your childhood with an Atari joystick in your hands, dreaming of Ally Sheedy or anxiously awaiting the day X-wing fighters would be available for purchase, you might just love this book.
UPDATE: My buddy Greg put together a Ready Player One Pinterest board with all of the references from the book he could find.
Ray Kurzweil is an expert in the field of artificial intelligence, an inventor and a futurist (a scientist who makes informed predictions about the future). In this book, he explains his theory of how the human mind works and how that understanding can be used to engineer artificial intelligence. His model, called the Pattern Recognition Theory of the Mind, proposes that the mind is made of hierarchical pattern recognizers that allow us to quickly process the massive amounts of information we encounter at any moment.
The core of this book is interesting, particularly when Kurzweil discusses the various ways computers are designed to mimic (and surpass) human intelligence. But he also makes bold statements that engender skepticism, as when he declares that his theory is the only possible way the mind could operate. Not everyone shares his view; his work has actually received quite a lot of criticism from the scientific community and in the mainstream media. He also wanders off onto various other topics—e.g. a long section on consciousness, a section where he recounts the predictions he made in a previous book and how they fared, and another section where he defends some of his previous work from specific criticism it has received. All of this would be better suited for his blog, and he comes off as full of himself. There are some interesting ideas here, but you have to kind of sift through some other stuff to get to them.
This is a pretty slim book, but it’s full of great advice on thriving in today’s creative economy.
You don’t get to pick your family, but you can pick your teachers and you can pick your friends and you can pick the music you listen to and you can pick the books you read and you can pick the movies you see. You are, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life…You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with.
On being in uncharted waters:
There’s this very real thing that runs rampant in educated people. It’s called “imposter syndrome.”…It means that you feel like a phony, like you’re just winging it, that you really don’t have any idea what you’re doing. Guess what: None of us do. Ask anybody doing truly creative work, and they’ll tell you the truth: They don’t know where the good stuff comes from. They just show up to do their thing. Every day.
On changing yourself:
Pretend to be something you’re not until you are—fake it until you’re successful, until everybody sees you the way you want them to.
In the beginning, we learn by pretending to be our heroes. We learn by copying. We’re talking about practice here, not plagiarism—plagiarism is trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own. Copying is about reverse-engineering. It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works…As Salvador Dalí said, “Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”
Step away from the screen…While I love my computer, I think computers have robbed us of the feeling that we’re actually making things…If you have the space, set up two workstations, one analog and one digital.
Don’t throw any of yourself away. If you have two or three real passions, don’t feel like you have to pick and choose between them. Don’t discard. Keep all your passions in your life.
On the company you keep:
Stand next to the talent. You’re only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with. In the digital space, that means following the best people online—the people who are way smarter and better than you, the people who are doing really interesting work. If you find that you’re the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room.
Those are just a few of the things I highlighted. There’s lots of other good stuff in this book.
About 10 years ago, I read DFW’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. I hated it. I think it might have been over my head at the time. Whatever the unfortunate reason, I didn’t come back to Wallace until recently, via a Jonathan Franzen essay which led me to Wallace’s short story “Good Old Neon” and eventually here. Now I’m going in. I have the considerable weight of Infinite Jest pressing down on my bookshelf next to the recent biography (D.T. Max) and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again just arrived in the mail. That, more or less, summarizes how much I liked this collection.
If you were to divide David Foster Wallace into three people—the writer, the thinker and the character—I would find each one fascinating in their own way. Together in one person, well, to avoid sounding like some gushing fanboy, I’ll just say that I know of no one else like him, and although I’m disappointed it’s taken me this long to get into his work, I’m happy that I still have plenty of it ahead of me.
As a philosopher, mathematician, logician and journalist all wrapped into one, with his hyper-intellectual mind and pervasive self-awareness/doubt, there are probably few places where Wallace wouldn’t be an outsider. In these essays, that works in his favor. He is at his funniest when he is far, far out of his element. The best two examples of this are the absurd “Big Red Son,” in which Wallace attends the Annual AVN Awards show—the Academy Awards of the porn industry. It is a celebration of the best (extremely subjective, I would suppose) of the nadir of entertainment culture. It is classic fish-out-of-water. The other similar, though less absurd, essay is “Consider the Lobster,” in which Wallace attends the Maine Lobster Festival. That essay, in signature DFW style, follows the thread of a tangential thought, and before we know it we’re down a rabbit hole—this one about the nature of pain, specifically as experienced by animals.
Part of what makes these essays awesome is that, in the case of the lobster story, for example, Wallace was sent to the festival by Gourmet Magazine. Imagine the editor at Gourmet Magazine receiving the draft of the article on the Maine Lobster Festival and it’s mostly about how a lobster senses pain. “Big Red Son” was for Premiere magazine. I used to subscribe to Premiere (they stopped publishing it in 2007). It was a film magazine that was a couple notches more serious and in-depth than Entertainment Weekly. Wallace’s full essay for the magazine is 47 pages long. (It was published, in very truncated form, under the pseudonyms Willem R. deGroot and Matt Rundlet.)
Wallace is famous for his tangents, sometimes handled as footnotes, sometimes in more inventive ways (his profile of a conservative talk show host employs the use of nested boxes and arrows to organize his asides in a kind of Internet-as-print form), but I would say that, based on these essays, what makes his approach unique is that he uses his tangents to eventually achieve a meta viewpoint of his subject. In what was surprisingly the best piece in the collection, “Up, Simba,” Wallace turns a piece on John McCain’s 2000 presidential primary campaign into a look at campaign reporting. This is far more interesting (and more timeless) than a simple profile of McCain.
And despite the fact that Wallace is most likely always the smartest person in the room, he is self-effacing and likable. He is rarely much of a presence in his essays, although we’re obviously seeing everything filtered through his magnificent brain. But most importantly for these essays, he does not mock his subjects. As outlandish or wrong as they may be, or as much as every cell of his being might disagree with them, he treats them with respect.
There are a few essays that are more academic, more Wallace in his element. They are also very good (I immediately ordered Dostoyevsky’s Notes From the Underground after reading his essay on it and had an urge to order all of Dostoyevsky’s books), but a little less enjoyable. Still, this book is a great Wallace primer. I couldn’t be more excited to dive into his other works.