Inspirational Figures, and Adam Gopnik on John Updike

Finding inspiration in other people is important but too often we look for this solely in the astronomically successful / famous / gifted.

While Steve Jobs may be an inspiration to some entrepreneurs or designers, I believe that his singular brilliance and one-of-a-kind approach makes the power of his example inspirational in only an abstract, limited sense. At times the mind-blowingly impressive people who go down in the history books can be anti-inspiring inasmuch as you (rightly or wrongly) attribute some of their success to natural talent, which — as you compare their natural talent to your own — makes you feel small and inadequate and hopeless.

The more actionable inspirational figures to me are 10-15 years ahead of me in life. Their lives I admire but also see within the realm of my own possibility if I work hard, keep learning, and get a few breaks along the way. And they’re not overly famous; they’re accessible.

The great American man-of-letters John Updike died recently, and he was surely in the former category of inspirational figures: someone who inspired me in the abstract sense but seemed so superhuman in his observational abilities, for example, that I walked away from reading him usually feeling down-on-my-genetic-lottery-luck rather than eager to take my own pass at arranging words into sentences.

But this doesn’t mean you ignore the John Updikes or Steve Jobses, of course. It just means you should supplement their wondrous examples with inspirational role models within reach.

Perhaps the supremely erudite Adam Gopnik fits that second category for me. I’m not saying I’m on a trajectory to ever attain his level of worldliness or craftsmanship when it comes to writing, but it seems at least imaginable in a way Updike never was.

Last night Adam Gopnik was on Charlie Rose eulogizing John Updike. Here’s the clip. The whole thing is worthwhile, but if you’re short on time watch from minutes 17 to 25 and tell me if you’ve seen a man talk about a topic with such a winning combination of eloquence, authority, friendliness, and genuine passion.

Here’s Gopnik’s very worthwhile written essay on Updike in the latest New Yorker. Here’s the somewhat famous David Foster Wallace review of Updike in 1997 where he refers to Updike as a “penis with a thesaurus.” Here’s Lee Siegel’s recent defense of Updike from Wallace and others.


On the News Hour, Jim Lehrer interviewed Michigan prof and novelist Nicholas Delbanco about Updike. There’s this bizarre and interesting exchange near the end. Delbanco spoke warmly of Updike the whole way, and then Lehrer pops a question rarely asked about a person.

JIM LEHRER: Was he pleasant?

NICHOLAS DELBANCO: He was a tricky man. He wasn’t — he was very affable, very courtly, but there was always a fist within that glove, I thought, and once or twice I saw him use it.

5 comments on “Inspirational Figures, and Adam Gopnik on John Updike
  • Really, Ben, you shouldn’t be overawed by the writing of John Updike, patron saint of onanism in middlebrow American literature.

    David Foster Wallace’s breezy, but rough clobbering of Updike’s Toward the End of Time serves well as a general assessment of the Great Narcissist’s oeuvre, however crudely fashioned the club (all those ‘Mr’s did nothing to soften the blows).

    I did take pleasure in the extreme irony of Wallace accusing Updike of narcissism and solipsism, the two most unattractive traits of his own writing.

    I could hardly stomach Adam Gopnik’s flowery encomium to the stultifying descriptive prose of one of our most addicted to list-making fetishists (shades of DFW, again).

    For an antidote to all the cloying hagiography, I suggest Gore Vidal’s elegant, but mercilessly incisive treatment of Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies.

  • Ben, DFW did not call himself describe Updike as a “penis with a thesaurus.” He was characterizing what many sub-40 women think about Updike, not his own views.

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