Book Review: The David Foster Wallace Reader

“A writer of virtuosic talents who can seemingly do anything.”

walacereaderThat’s what one critic once said of David Foster Wallace. Its ringing truth is on display in the recent anthology of Wallace’s writing, The David Foster Wallace Reader. The collection contains non-fiction essays, short stories, excerpts from his novels, class notes/syllabi from his time as a professor, and email exchanges with his mom.

It’s an essential addition to the library of any hardcore Wallace fan and a pretty decent introduction to his work for newbies, since it’s a curated and edited “greatest hits” collection. Buy the print edition not the e-book, as it’s the sort of thing you might want to flip through, not read every last word on every one of the 800+ pages.

One of my favorites in the collection, which I hadn’t read before, was “Little Expressionless Animals,” a story originally published in The Girl with Curious Hair. There’s a hilarious sequence about how one character was “reeling into Lesbiansism.”

I had also not read “Incarnations of Burned Children” before. It originally appeared in Esquire in year 2000. It’s three pages long, a single paragraph, and very powerful. A must read.

Some of my favorite excerpts from The Pale King are in here, including his extended riff urging the reader to ignore the disclaimer on the copyright page that what follows is fiction. Many other paragraphs to potentially quote in this post, such as:

The paradox of plagiarism is that it actually requires a lot of care and hard work to pull off successfully, since the original text’s style, substance, and logical sequences have to be modified enough so that the plagiarism isn’t totally, insultingly obvious to the professor who’s grading it.

Or this one, which I tweeted:

Many of the chapters have an afterword written by an academic or commentator. One of Kari Kunzru’s comments after one of the stories gave me pause:

If being expressionless is the result of trauma, as it is in this story, then self-expression must be healthy. But somehow, in the cities of the developed world, expressing yourself has started to feel like work. We’re constantly exhorted toward ever-greater feats of affect, to be that little bit more creative; to commit to our goals; to give service with a smile, feigning excitement like contestants on a game show. When life takes on this game-show quality — fake, regimented, spiritually exhausted — expressivity pulls in two directions, both toward and away from truthfulness. It can be another kind of mask, the kind that eats away at the face until you’re no longer sure what your off-camera reaction would be.

Book Review: The Unspeakable

daumbokI’ve been reading Meghan Daum’s columns for years. When I saw she had a new collection of essays out titled The Unspeakable — and that it received the high praise of Cheryl Strayed — I immediately bought it.

The theme running through most of the pieces is “sentimentality and its discontents.” In her words:

Collectively I hoped they’d add up to a larger discussion about the way human experiences too often come with preassigned emotional responses.

In other words: We’re supposed to feel crippling sadness when someone close to us dies but we don’t. We’re supposed to have newfound insight on life after a near-death experience but we don’t. She writes with utter clarity, energy, and honesty about these sorts of gaps in emotion. It’s a pleasure to read her and it’s easy to recommend this collection. (For excellent musings on sentimentality from two other wise souls, see these two essays in the New York Times book review.)

The opening essay of Daum’s collection is about her being at the bedside of her mother as the mother dies and instead of being overcome with grief she’s preoccupied by a range of practical concerns, like how she’s going to cancel her mother’s apartment lease. Right out of the gate you know she’s going to be as honest as can be, even about the people closest to her.

In an essay on the pleasures of not being a foodie (hear hear!), she argues that she strives for contentment, not the mushy concept of happiness. Contentment doesn’t mean settling or just a “fine” life; rather it means

…feeling like I’m in the right life. Living in a place where I feel like part of a community, doing work that feels reasonably meaningful, surrounding myself with people I enjoy, respect, and in some cases love. It would mean spending as little time as possible doing things I don’t want to do.

What I’m saying is that contentment is a tall order. Not impossible, but formidable enough to elude most of us most of the time. But there’s a trick to it, a master key to all the dead bolts that lock us out of our inner peace. The key to contentment is to live life to the fullest within the confines of your comfort zone. Stay in safe waters but plunge as deeply into them as possible. If you’re good at something, do it a lot. If you’re bad at something, just don’t do it. Celebrate it. Be the best noncook you can be…

Of course, for some people, being outside their comfort zone is itself the comfort zone. I’m talking about people who backpack around developing countries with hardly any money, journalists who become addicted to covering wars, and soldiers who become addicted to fighting them.

There’s a piece on nostalgia and youth. I loved this graf:

Now that I am almost never the youngest person in any room I realize that what I miss most about those times is the very thing that drove me so mad back when I was living in them. What I miss is the feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life. But what I forget is the loneliness of all that. If everything is ahead then nothing is behind. You have no ballast. You have no tailwinds either. You hardly ever know what to do, because you’ve hardly done anything. I guess this is why wisdom is supposed to be the consolation prize of aging. It’s supposed to give us better things to do than stand around and watch in disbelief as the past casts long shadows over the future.

The problem, I now know, is that no one ever really feels wise, least of all those who actually have it in themselves to be so. The Older Self of our imagination never quite folds itself into the older self we actually become. Instead, it hovers in the perpetual distance like a highway mirage.

Here’s Meghan Daum’s interview on the Longform podcast, which was interesting.

What Makes America What It Is

I’m not particularly patriotic. Nonetheless, I was moved by the eloquence with which Barack Obama articulated the American creed at the march at Selma over the weekend. Likely one of the speeches that will highlight his presidency.

For the blow by blow analysis, see Fallows. (Always see Fallows for wisdom…)

Markets vs. Central Planners, An On-Going Series

A great little vignette from Don Boudreaux about humility and markets.

I remember back in the late 1970s or early 1980s when I first noticed that still water began to be offered for sale in single-sized bottles. I was convinced that this product would fail. “Who would pay for still water in single-sized bottles when still water can be gotten for free out of water fountains and water coolers or at zero marginal cost out of faucets at home?” I reasoned. Whether I reasoned rightly or wrongly, my prediction proved wrong. Reason, you see, is a wonderful and necessary tool, but also one of limited power. My reason could not reveal to me the preferences of millions of other people. My reason could not reveal to me the ambitions and the creativity of entrepreneurs. My reason could not reveal to me the details of an open-ended future in which people are free to spend their money—as consumers, as producers, and as investors—as they wish.

Had I been a government planner in the 1970s or early 1980s—a planner with the finest training, the highest integrity, and a most intense desire to serve my fellow citizens well—I would have counseled against directing society’s scarce resources into the production and distribution of single-sized bottled still water. My reason would have assured me of the prudence and correctness of my decision. And if I were such a government planner whose diktat would have been heeded, no one would ever have learned that my decision stunk.

That markets work better, in all their chaos, than smart, well-intentioned central planners, is in one sense quite counterintuitive.

Why You Need Network Intelligence in Your Company

You want your employees networking outside the company–even on the company dime and on company time.

This is a theme we explore in-depth in The Alliance. As a brief summary, we’ve prepared a new slide deck on why network intelligence matters, and how to set up programs to support it at your company. Check it out.

Book Review: The Path to Power by Robert Caro

The movie Selma, which debuted a few weeks ago, shines a spotlight on Martin Luther King Jr. and the fight for civil rights. It’s also sparked a side controversy over its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson. Some say it unfairly diminishes Johnson’s positive role in the civil rights movement.

How many Americans really know the story of Lyndon Johnson?

Over the years, several people have recommended to me Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography. It’s a four-part series on the life and career of America’s 36th president, with the fifth and final edition due out in a few years. People say it’s one of the best political biographies ever. I just finished volume one, The Path to Power, and I can report that it was totally compelling, at turns a gripping narrative of larger-than-life characters and a well-written explainer on 1950’s Texas.

Caro would argue it’s a vitally important topic: “Knowing Lyndon Baines Johnson—understanding the character of the thirty-sixth President of the United States—is essential to understanding the history of the United States in the twentieth century.”

The civil rights legislation that Johnson championed in the Senate and then later as President are addressed in the later volumes, which I have not yet read, so here I will pose just one general observation and question.

The question is this: Does everyone who achieves historic status in the world of business, entertainment, and politics possess a pathological level of ambition and hunger for power? Johnson reached the peak of global power despite being born in one of the poorest parts of the United States. It takes a certain kind of person to climb the tallest mountain when you start at the very bottom. Do these people suffer from insecurities and a need to be liked that’s so totalizing and so severe that these insecurities serve as the fuel for said ambition? And, moreover, is it the case that for most people who make it to the top, they sacrifice almost everything, from relationships to privacy to hobbies?

The more you read biographies of people who led historic lives, especially in politics, the more you begin to see an usual level of ambition that’s fueled as much by darkness as by light: where darkness takes the form of some primal character flaw, or an abusive or absent father, or an unforgettable injustice that molds the character.

This volume one by Robert Caro is an extraordinary of portrait of exactly that kind of ambitious, deeply flawed person: Lyndon Johnson. The portrait does justice to both the man himself and the varied influences around him that enabled his rapid rise from Hill Country Texas to Congress.

Johnson’s hunger for power knew no ends. He once said, “I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me. I know where to look for it, and how to use it.” In the early part of his career, which this volume focuses on, we see how willingly he works crazy hours, lies, kisses ass, compromises, whatever it takes, really — in order to slowly move up the political pecking order. The moment he attained power, he immediately used it to position himself for the next rung up.

Eventually, as Senator and then President, he came to use his power tragically in Vietnam but also wonderfully and historically in championing civil rights legislation that had been voted down time and time again. His Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1965 were the first meaningful civil rights legislation on the books since 1870.

If you want to understand the president in the movie Selma — or you just want to understand American history better — begin Robert Caro’s series The Years of Lyndon Johnson. It’s terrific.

Various highlights from the book are included below the fold.



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“Life Will Take Care of the Rest”

A few months ago, Nathan Heller wrote a fantastic review of William Deresiewicz’s book, a book that argues that elite colleges are bad for the soul.

The close of Nathan’s piece makes an important point with a light touch:

Beneath [Deresiewickz’s] fury at the failings of higher education is an almost religious belief in its potential. The stakes are, in truth, lower than he thinks. A college education, even a poor one, isn’t the final straightaway of self-realization, after all. It is the starting gate. College seniors leave with plans for law careers and then, a J.D. later, find their bliss as graphic artists. Financiers emerge as novelists. Avowed actors thrive in corporate life. And some alumni, maybe more than some, never get there; they work, marry, bear kids, buy homes, and feel that their true lives have somehow passed them by.

Would better college years have made those people more fulfilled? Even in the era of fast tracks and credentialism, the psychic mechanisms of an education are mysterious. Let teachers like Deresiewicz believe. For a couple of hours every week, students are theirs in the classroom to challenge and entrance. Then the clock strikes, and the kids flock back into the madness of their lives. Did the new material reach them? Will the lesson be washed from their minds? Who knows. They heard it. Life will take care of the rest.

Travel Reminds You: “This is Just One of Many Possible Worlds”

Washington_Dulles_International_Airport_at_Dusk

A few years ago, Alain de Botton wrote a book titled A Week At the Airport, about his time living at Heathrow airport for a week. Below’s an excerpt from the book in Harper’s magazine that resonated. It’s a special feeling when you return home from a long trip and put your head down at night and then think back to the place where you woke up. I remember when I once woke up in a small village in Costa Rica where there was no hot water, I then traveled all day, and by night was lying in bed in rich San Francisco. The contrast in my environments was striking. De Botton:

There used to be time to arrive. Incremental geographic changes would ease the inner transitions: desert would gradually give way to shrub, savannah to grassland. At the harbor, the cam- els would be unloaded, a room would be found overlooking the customs house, passage would be negotiated on a steamer. Flying fish would skim past the ship’s hull. The crew would play cards. The air would cool.

Now a traveler may be in Abuja on Tuesday and at the end of a satellite in the new terminal at Heathrow on Wednesday. Yesterday lunch time, one had fried plantain in the Wuse Dis- trict to the sound of an African cuckoo, whereas at eight this morning the captain is closing down the 777’s twin engines at a gate next to a branch of Costa Coffee.

Despite one’s exhaustion, one’s senses are fully awake, registering everything—the light, the signage, the floor polish, the skin tones, the me- tallic sounds, the advertisements—as sharply as if one were on drugs, or a newborn baby, or Tolstoy. Home all at once seems the strangest of destinations, its every detail relativized by the other lands one has visited. How peculiar this morning light looks against the memory of dawn in the Obudu hills, how unusual the recorded announcements sound after the wind in the High Atlas, and how inexplicably English (in a way they will never know) the chat of the two female ground staff seems when one has the din of a street market in Lusaka still in one’s ears.

One wants never to give up this crystalline perspective. One wants to keep counterpoising home with what one knows of alternative realities, as they exist in Tunis or Hyderabad. One wants never to forget that nothing here is normal, that the streets are different in Wiesbaden and Luoyang, that this is just one of many possible worlds.

(Hat tip Steve Dodson.)

My New Essay on Lessons Learned

I wrote a long essay about what I learned from Reid Hoffman over the past 4.5 years.

I also describe some of what I did from 2012 to 2014 — a behind-the-scenes role I haven’t written about until now.

You can read the full essay here.

Fortune Magazine: Treat Your Career Like a Start-up

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There’s a feature story in Fortune magazine this month with a suggested 2015 resolution for all professionals: treat your career as a startup.

Delighted to see our book The Start-up of You as an anchor in the piece, and to see the career story of Nitin Julka highlighted as well. Nitin is featured on the Start-up of You web site as a case study in someone who used the principles of the book to transform his career:

On a quarterly basis, he conducts a life assessment and reviews what he considers to be his professional competitive advantage. Among his “most unique” attributes he lists his receptiveness to feedback. Indeed, in his quest for continual improvement, he has recorded personal and professional feedback in a single, running Google doc since 2010. He reads it once a week, when prompted by a recurring calendar invite.

Here’s the full Fortune piece.