Monthly Archives: September 2008

DFW Tributes and My Essay on His Kenyon Speech

More literary reflections on David Wallace’s life and contributions to the American scene are starting to roll in. I’ve linked to and excerpted a few below. Here is my spur of the moment reflection at 1 AM last night.

If you haven’t read Wallace I would recommend not starting with Infinite Jest, but one of his non-fiction essay collections such as Consider the Lobster or A Supposedly Fun Thing That I’ll Never Do Again. Here some favorite nuggets of mine from Infinite Jest. Here’s my post on his Best Essays introduction.

Also, many of remembrances reference his 2005 Commencement Address at Kenyon College. It is indeed worth reading. Below the fold on this blog post I include portions of an essay I wrote a few months ago on the speech, summarizing and analyzing it.

To the remembrances….

Here’s Michiko Kakutani in the NY Times:

For that matter, much of Mr. Wallace’s work…felt like outtakes from a continuing debate inside his head about the state of the world and the role of the writer in it, and the chasm between idealism and cynicism, aspirations and reality. The reader could not help but feel that Mr. Wallace had inhaled the muchness of contemporary America — a place besieged by too much data, too many video images, too many high-decibel sales pitches and disingenuous political ads — and had so many contradictory thoughts about it that he could only expel them in fat, prolix narratives filled with Möbius strip-like digressions, copious footnotes and looping philosophical asides.

Here’s David Gates in Newsweek who spends a little more time on the suicide references in DFW’s later writings. Elsewhere Gates writes:

True, Wallace was a head case, but in the sense that we’re all head cases: encased in our skulls, and sealed off from our fellow humans, we have worlds upon worlds of teeming, unruly sensations, emotions, attitudes, opinions and-that chillingly neutral word-information. "What goes on inside," Wallace wrote in "Good Old Neon," is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at a given instant.

Here’s Laura Miller in Salon who says Wallace made us feel a little less alone:

Every author wants to sell books, to please his or her publisher, to reap critical accolades and to bask in the admiration of colleagues, and Wallace did want those things, at the same time that he was more than a little embarrassed by such desires and acutely aware of the fact that none of it could make him happy. However, all great writers — and I have no doubt that he was one — have a preeminent purpose: to tell the truth. David Foster Wallace’s particular vocation was to allow us to see just how fraught and complicated, how difficult yet how necessary, that telling had become — not just for him, but for all of us. What will we do without him?

Here’s Christopher Hayes in The Nation:

Wallace’s project, which he lays out pretty clearly in this 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, was empathy. And as a hyper-brilliant mind, the path he took towards it, in his writing, was to use his raw intellectual horsepower to achieve a kind of moral enlightenment. There was, in this way, a merging of form and content: his writing worked because he was able to achieve this kind of brilliant, self-conscious, painfully self-aware, but nonetheless robust and heart-breaking empathy for his characters and subjects. And as a reader, the prose itself made one feel a similar kind of soul connection to both the writer and the people the writer described. He felt close. His characters felt close. And reading him I found that the prison bars of my own embedded subjectivity, my own selfish "default setting" was shaken, bent, expanded just enough to be able to glimpse something eternally, capital-T True. Something sublime.

Speaking of that speech, below the fold, a summary and analysis.

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Remembering David Foster Wallace

The world has lost a spectacular writer. Already it seems as if some special portal of human intelligence has been closed off. — John Seery, colleague and friend in HuffPost remembrance

David Foster Wallace, one of my heroes and inspirations, hanged himself Friday night here in Claremont. Considered among the greatest writers of his generation, and certainly a jewel on the Pomona faculty, I’ve been reading and following his work for years. His loss is crushing.

Virtually every time I read Wallace I feel inspired to want to be smarter. He inspires me with his range — from the meaning of number zero to esoteric literary theory to talk radio to tennis to politics. He inspires me with his style — surely not everyone’s taste, but even his critics admire his courage to re-define his genre and challenge convention. He inspires me with his relentless humor — even if his ideas were baseless (they’re not) he would still be recognized as a world class humorist. He inspires me with his raw thought process — how he arranged his verbs and nouns to produce an argument that was accessible and rational and entertaining all at once.David_foster_wallace_3

Wallace’s suicide raises for me the question about the correlation between enlightenment and depression. How much truth is there to the phrase "ignorance is bliss"? How unbearable is genius?

It was not a question I discussed with his other readers. When marveling at Wallace’s output, we always talked about its brio but we never seriously pondered whether the author was a happy man.

Discovering that somebody vigorously read (or tried to read!) Wallace became for me another one of those litmus tests when deciding whether to spend time with a person. To me it didn’t matter so much that people liked him or agreed with him, but rather that they were disposed to be tickled by his intellect.


There is sure to be a deluge of remembrances and obituaries about Wallace’s life in the coming days. I thought I could contribute my part to this collection by relaying a quick story about meeting Wallace here in Claremont.

Since 2002 Wallace had taught a class a semester at Pomona College. His reputation as a teacher matched his reputation in the literary world. Students loved him. Far from adopting the pose of "famous professor who doesn’t have time for his students," Wallace was known to offer excruciatingly detailed and personal critiques of students’ work. (He also didn’t need the money of an endowed professorship — see his MacArthur genius grant, for example.)

When I arrived in Claremont in fall 2007, one of my goals was to take his class. As a student at Claremont McKenna, part of the consortium of colleges here which permit cross registration, it was going to be possible but difficult since for popular classes preference is given to seniors at the home college.

I looked up Wallace’s course this past spring at Pomona and saw he was teaching "The Literary Essay," which was about the art of the imaginative non-fiction essay, a skill for which Wallace can comfortably claim expertise, to put it mildly. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to register for it.

I showed up to his class anyway. At the least I just wanted to see him in person. I was terrified.

After going down the list of twelve and taking note of each student’s name, major, and hometown, Wallace looked around to see if he missed anybody. Me. He asked who I was. I said I was a student who hoped to enroll in his class. He said it was full and there was a waiting list. I said I understood. He said I was welcome to leave. I asked if he wanted me to leave. He said it was going to be a boring day of reviewing the syllabus and he wouldn’t want me to suffer through it if I were not going to actually be in the class. David Foster Wallace reviewing a syllabus on writing? People would pay money to be witness to that. I said I’d prefer to stay since I had walked all the way over, and he agreed.

His syllabus was wonderful — and yes, it had footnotes. He seemed to be chewing tobacco and spitting it into a mug as he talked about why this was going to be a class where we as writers improve our ability to engage a reader who has zero interest in our opinions or emotions. He wore big black shoes, the laces seemed undone, and had a bandanna on his head.

To round out the syllabus, Wallace asked some kids to volunteer to turn in essays on certain days for group workshopping. No one volunteered. I looked around, incredulous. David Foster Wallace just asked for volunteers, and no one is volunteering?!?! He announced there would be a bathroom break and when class re-convened, somebody had better be ready to sign up.

Outside, in the bathroom, I smiled awkwardly to him and told him I was a huge fan of his work. I felt like just another fanboy. Even though this famous writer has heard much higher praise, he still smiled genuinely and thanked me for the kind words.

Using the email address he listed on the syllabus, I emailed Wallace after class to ask if I could meet with him one on one. To my astonishment he replied a few hours later and said I could come to his office hours and we’d chat. In his reply he also "beseeched" me not to share his email address with anyone. (He was notoriously difficult to access; he did not maintain a Pomona email address; phone calls to the English Dept were directed to his agent; he did very few interviews / media appearances for his books.)

A week later I went to his office hours. I showed up 20 minutes early and paced around the building, going over what I would ask him. I walked in right at 6pm, and saw him in the hallway. He gently remembered who I was, pointed to his office, and said he’d be in in a minute. I stood around in his large office alone, admiring the books lining the shelves and soaking up the reality of the situation.

We ended up talking for about 25 minutes before another student showed up. I asked him about editing the Best American Essays of 2007. I asked him how he crafts such vivid descriptions in his writing (his response was that good writers slave over their work and the brilliant description doesn’t happen on the first try). I asked about the value of an education. He was gracious, kind, and interested.

This all happened just a few months ago. I must admit I harbored some fantasy of meeting him again, taking a full class, getting some tips, learning more about the man behind the prose. That possibility, no matter how remote, is now gone. All I have is the memory of sitting in his office.

More important, the world has lost one of its most distinctive and illuminating voices. A sad night.

How Boulder Became a Start-Up Town

I have a ~2,600 word piece in the latest issue of The American, the publication of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, on how Boulder, CO became a start-up town. Excerpt:

In the past 15 years, Boulder has gone from a little hippie college town to a little hippie college town also boasting an impressive and growing congregation of Internet entrepreneurs, early-stage venture capitalists, and bloggers. How did Boulder pull this off? And what can other cities, policymakers, and entrepreneurs who want to boost their own start-up quotient—and overall competitiveness at a local level—learn from Boulder’s success?

The formatting — namely section breaks — is better in the print magazine.

Arnold Kling, in reflecting on the latest issue, called The American a "top notch" publication. I agree (my article excepted, of course!) it’s an engaging read for anyone interested in business and policy.

Definition of the Day: A People Person

I graduated from the University of Michigan with a liberal arts degree and my only marketable skill being that I was a “people person”. Essentially being a people person means that you like sports, woman, drinking and aren’t good at math or science.

That’s from this somewhat entertaining and depressing overview of 10 things / people you can expect if you go into sales.

Very Simple Writing Advice from James Wood

  • Writers should treat their fictions with the deference due something real; or, if they don’t, they should show that they understand the consequences of not doing so.
  • They should grant characters their measure of "metaphysical presence," not move them around like pawns in "metafictional games."
  • Authors should be "gravely affirmative" before they give themselves license to be "gravely skeptical."
  • They should "inhabit" their stories, rather than play with them.
  • Details should be sprinkled with a light but deliberate touch (tact, of course, comes from the Latin for touch) and imbued with the weight of what the medieval theologian Duns Scotus called "thisness": "By thisness," Wood writes, "I mean any detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability."
  • Dialogue should hold back as much as, if not more than, it says.
  • A good metaphor does not just conform to a character’s worldview; it "hovers around the character, and seems to emanate from that character’s world."

Thisness? Gravely affirmative? Metaphysical presence? Deference due something real?

I guess this is why I’m a mere blogger and at times a wannabe non-fiction writer, not someone deep into the world of fiction and serious criticism.

Jon Chait on Naomi Klein

It’s always interesting to read a smart person’s intelligent yet devastating take-down of an argument, partly because it’s so difficult to do. The intellectual scene is littered with personal attacks, sweeping generalizations, or humorless nitpicking that leave even agreeable readers feeling sympathetic for the person on the other end.

If you want an example of a professional, thoughtful, detailed, and nonetheless devastating critique of a thesis, read Jon Chait’s review of Naomi Klein’s bestselling book The Shock Doctrine in the New Republic. It does what a lengthier book review is supposed to do which is contextualize the book before reviewing it. Read the whole thing. For those who don’t know, the Shock Doctrine’s thrust is that free marketers hunt for crisis and disaster so that, while chaos reigns, they can impose free market doctrines on an unsuspecting populace.

It used to be the “conversation” about an issue would stop here, or perhaps make its way onto the word count-constrained “Letters to the Editor” pages. In the era of blogs, however, subjects of criticisms can offer their own reply to higher profile critiques. Naomi Klein is no different. Here’s her response to Chait. Oh man.

Her response comes off to me as amateurish, partly because, in a usual sign of insecurity, she concedes almost nothing and instead styles herself (and her heroic research assistant) as underdog truth bearers saying the things we don’t want to hear but must. Amusingly, despite the fact that one of Chait’s complaints is she too quickly treats disparate ideas as a single entity, Klein decides to lump Chait’s essay in with another critique that came from Cato and address them together.

She opens her response by insisting that Milton Friedman did, in fact, support the Iraq war, by citing an interview conducted in German by the magazine Focus. Klein translates the German back to English to reach her conclusion about Friedman — a libertarian who does not support nation building and called the Iraq war an act of aggression. He’s also not fluent in German. Klein doesn’t find her charge remarkable. Had she a better understanding of the different strands of conservatism and the one to which Friedman belongs, she would know that her claim needs more evidence than a translated sentence which, even then, is rather ambiguous as to what Friedman is trying to say. The incoherence of her summary of conservative think tanks both in the book and her reply proves Chait’s point that she does not care to be bothered by nuance (such as libertarianism), preferring instead the simple explanation that the Chicago School (or that lovely evil catch-all “neo-cons”) ruins whatever it touches.

She stammers her way forward. Later, in a revealing sentence, she says only one significant error in the book has been discovered relating to Cheney’s profit potential in Halliburtun. To me, this is like conceding you misspelled a word and misses the point that it’s not only the facts she assembles but the way she assembles them that cause complaint. In one last flourish, she says, “We invite you to explore these documents, send us ones we missed, and come to your own conclusions.” Truly, is there a more cliched line among essayists straining to appear dispassionately even-keeled?

My take on Klein is that she is as surprised as anyone at her meteoric rise in influence. Without advance notice she’s been thrust into a spotlight that precludes backpedaling, retroactive clarifying, or “grey.” It’s a shame. As Chait says, there is merit and data to support some of her ideas. Unfortunately, the substance and complexity of these ideas seem to have been lost in the towering figure of the Naomi Klein logo and brand, and her new role as the unwavering flag bearer of the anti-globalization moment.

A Weekend in the Smoky Mountains

As part of my ongoing commitment to "bulk positive randomness" and my focus on meeting more people under 30 who are at a similar professional point as me, I participated in a retreat in Tennessee last weekend with about 15 other entrepreneurs, consultants, writers, and grad students.

Everyone was under age 30 (most under 25) and we spent three nights living in a huge house (11+ bedrooms, two kitchens, two living rooms) nestled next to the Great Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee.

Besides a couple organized conversations and two yoga sessions (including a 30 min Laughter Yoga session which was fascinating and fun and I recommend everyone do it at least once), the weekend was totally unstructured. The itinerary was: wake up, sit around and talk to others, continue talking, eat, talk some more, eat again, talk some more, go to bed, repeat.Crootofsunset5_2

I was reminded that where you are can affect the quality of what you talk about. Since many of us traveled from California to a very redneck part of the South, it made us more committed to getting the most out of the experience. It also was just culturally interesting and memorable. We smoked a pig for 11 hours and ate with with real BBQ sauce. We went out for lunch one day at a place that served almost entirely meat and fried things. The accent was strong. The religious imagery ubiquitous. These new and different sights and smells colored the conversation in an interesting way, I think.

Right after arriving at the house, I was talking to a young guy about water issues and he did three things that immediately soared through my "litmus tests" for determining whether I’ll like someone. First, he took notes as we talked, jotting down book references and ideas. Second, he revealed he had a blog (usually suggests intellectual curiosity). Third, he referenced the TED Talks which is not an indicator in and of itself but suggests he probably consumes the same kind of online intellectual content as me (like Bloggingheads or BookForum or blogs in general).

I am cautious about attending events or conferences. Most conferences are a waste of time or money. There’s too much variance in the quality of the attendees, the speakers are hit-or-miss, the networking opportunities are rushed, and the actual learning (for me) could be better obtained on my own. But, like the St. Gallen Symposium or two other off-the-record events I participate in, when there’s a strong filter on attendees and when there’s an emphasis on conversation instead of dreadful "expert" panels or keynote speakers, the group dynamic among like minds can be uniquely stimulating.

Links from Around the Web

Quick links, cheap shots, bon mots….

This is a hilarious two minute deleted scene from the movie Knocked Up. Warning: vulgar. Here’s the Asian doctor’s MySpace page with add’l clips.

From a fascinating article (not online) in the Sept 1 New Yorker about what retail stores are doing to combat shoplifters (who stole about $40 billion worth of merchandise in 2006), there’s this golden nugget:

Men shopping alone and carrying any kind of bag always draw a second look from agents because it’s assumed that most men will go shopping only when dragged by a wife or girlfriend.

Indeed. Let the gender-profiling begin….

Will Wilkinson excerpts common red state/blue state political myths:

Myth: The rich vote based on economics, the poor vote “God, guns, and gays.”
Fact: Church attendance predicts Republican voting much more among rich than poor.

Myth: Democrats are the party of the poor, Republicans are the party of the rich.
Fact: Rich people are getting richer in Democratic states. Incomes at the lower end have been increasing faster in Republican states.

Myth: Class divisions in voting are less in America than in European countries, which are sharply divided between left and right.
Fact: Rich and poor differ more strongly in their voting pattern in the United States than in most European countries.

Myth: Religion is particularly divisive in American politics.
Fact: Religious and secular voters differ no more in America than in France, Germany, Sweden, and many other European countries.

The problem in the airline industry is not that we have too little regulation, it’s that we have too much. I argued a couple months ago that the best way to improve the U.S. domestic flying experience would be to open up domestic routes to foreign carriers. Felix Salmon mentions the same, and points out that the data for total number of people who are flying is still going up. As I’ve said, current chaos and oil prices notwithstanding, I’m still betting big on the airline industry over the next 50 years.

David Zetland on the difference between risk and uncertainty:

Risk is something that you can quantify in terms of probabilities, while uncertainty is something that you cannot.

More links over at my delicious bookmarks page….

Memo to Americans: For Many in the World, Identity is Something You Die For

This op/ed in the LA Times a few days ago is an excellent follow-up to my post last week on identity.

Two sentence summation of the op/ed: America loves to talk about its melting pot ideal, but the reality is that in most places identity — particularly ethnic identity — is not something whipped out and celebrated on multicultural day at school. It’s something to die for. Key excerpts:

As a nation and as individuals, we tend to view the world through the prism of our own experiences. Over the last few weeks, Russians, Georgians, Abkhazians and South Ossetians have reminded us that ethnic nationalism and secessionism are on the rise around the globe. I worry that the American experience leaves the United States and its citizens unprepared to confront it….

And just because one may not want to “believe” in identities — ethnic groups and ethno-religious groups — that doesn’t mean that they somehow disappear from the world.

We pride ourselves on a successful history of incorporating immigrants and assume that other nations should or can do the same. Sure, we have our militias, white Christian identity movements, campus-based race warriors, ethnic and racial street gangs, but these groups generally exist on the margins and don’t play a significant role in national politics in the way that the “Basque question” does in Spain or the Kurdish, Tamil, Igbo, Palestinian, Kosovar or South Ossetian questions do elsewhere.

Our elites are so steeped in the melting-pot idea that they don’t even recognize that they see the world through the bias of the majority….Americans who feel they’ve transcended group membership have a hard time understanding the power of blood, culture and belonging….

For too long, the march of modernity around the globe, and our own sense of great power hubris, led us to believe that the world would only become more like us over time. But the events of the last decade should convince us that this is clearly not the case. If for no other reason than to understand emerging threats, Americans will have to stop pretending that for most people around the globe, identity is something not just to celebrate — once a year, at a street fair or during fill-in-the-blank history month — but to die for.

Decision-Making Ability Matters More Than Experience

Wisdom from Tyler Cowen in this IM transcript with Ross Douthat on the Sarah Palin VP pick:

Everyone is harping on the experience issue. The biggest question is how good a decision-maker you are and how "meta-rational" you are, namely having the ability to recognize your own imperfections. I don’t know how she does on those counts, but those are the more honest questions, not whether she can name or understand all the different factions in Afghanistan. No one can.

Right on. I’d much rather have someone less experienced but more self-aware and "meta-rational." (I’m not saying Palin is the latter.) This goes for business too. Experience ought not be the only proxy for decision making ability when hiring someone. Asking someone, "What are you strengths and weaknesses?" and then contrasting his answers with the answers of people he’s worked with might be one way to size up his self-awareness.

Speaking of the Palin pick…my Twitter stream is filled with my liberal friends bashing Palin and calling McCain nuts for picking her. I disagree with Palin on virtually everything. But I’d have to agree with my friend Chris that it’s a shrewd political move by McCain.

I have yet to decide who I’m going to vote for in November. I am increasingly unmoved by Obama’s rhetoric and shy away from politicians who believe the path to change / enlightenment starts in Washington. My ideal Washington D.C. is a place where politicians argue with one another all day and get nothing done. If the Dems control the House, Senate, and White House, the probability goes up that politicians will be able pass liberal legislation that attempts to solve all our problems.

I don’t mean for this to pass as an analysis of the scene — the world doesn’t need another pundit on politics, but I couldn’t resist at least a few sentences since politics is in the air!