What I’ve Been Reading

1. Why Students Don’t Like School by Daniel Willingham.

Rather than read the book, just read this review to learn how a neuroscientist would explain why so many students hate school. Two other nuggets from the book:

Thinking occurs when you combine information (from the environment and long-term memory) in new ways. That combining happens in working memory.

And an apparently researched assertion:

Students assess professors on two things: does he seem like a nice person, and is the class well organized?

2. A Changed Man by Francine Prose. I enjoy Prose’s book reviews and enjoyed Reading Like a Writer. This was the first I’ve tried of her novels, and I was satisfied but I’m sure she’s done better. Put this in the “mental floss” category. I read all the way to the end just to find out of the main character was going to have sex with his sponsor. My favorite sentence was: “Sometimes being in a car, looking at the road, not having to make eye contact, is the ideal setting for heavy conversation.”

3. By Night in Chile by Robert Bolaño. A short, night-time rant which offers some interesting takes on the church in Chile, but in the end wasn’t enough to hold my attention all the way through. I’m told there’s better Bolaño out there.

4. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. I befriended Gretchen a few years ago and have been reading and linking to her ever since. This is the book version of her most excellent blog on happiness, with some content you won’t find on the blog. For those who haven’t read other books in the happiness genre, you’ll find the insights here useful and month-by-month format appealing. Those in young marriages will benefit the most as Gretchen spends a good deal of time discussing relationships. As I write this the book is at #20 on Amazon! Congrats, Gretchen.

5. Oblivion: Stories by David Foster Wallace. Short stories. “Good Old Neon,” arguably Wallace’s most famous piece of writing outside of Infinite Jest, is worth the price of admission. The others didn’t do much for me. I love DFW’s non-fiction; I only like his fiction.

Favorite paragraph:

a large percentage of bright young men and women locate the impetus behind their career choice in the belief that they are fundamentally different from the common run of man, unique and in certain crucial ways superior, more as it were central, meaningful — what else could explain the fact that they themselves have been at the exact center of all they’ve experienced for the whole 20 years of their conscious lives? And that there was also a good possibility that, when all was said and done, I was nothing but just another fast-track yuppie who couldn’t love, and that I found the banality of this unendurable, largely because I was evidently so hollow and insecure that I had a pathological need to see myself as somehow exceptional or outstanding at all times.

Classic Wallace description:

…permanent benevolent look in his eyes of someone older who had many grandchildren and spent so much time looking warmly at them that the expression becomes almost ingrained.

On loneliness:

She’s grown up to be a very poised, witty, self-sufficient person, with maybe just the slightest whiff of the perfume of loneliness that hangs around unmarried women around age thirty. The fact is that we’re all lonely, of course. Everyone knows this, it’s almost a cliche. So yet another layer of my essential fraudulence is that I pretended to myself that my loneliness was special, that it was uniquely my fault because I was somehow especially fraudulent and hollow. It’s not special at all, we’ve all got it. In spades.

5 comments on “What I’ve Been Reading
  • It’s always a bad sign for reading pleasure when right away a writer, as Wallace does in Good Old Neon, pops off with something like this: “I know this part is boring and probably boring you, by the way, but it gets a lot more interesting when I get to the part where I kill myself…”

    When he (the narrator/Wallace) says he discovers what happens immediately after a person dies, I have to suppress the thought that I hope he discovers he’s roasting in one of the more tropical regions of Hell.

    His round-about approach to the subject makes me feel as if I’m about to be defrauded, and if I continue to read, the author is going to punish me for not turning away immediately.

    You have to realize just how perversely monomaniacal the solipsist David Foster Wallace really was: he typed every word of the thousand-odd pages of the Infinite Jest manuscript with one finger– twice.

    Nevertheless, I plowed through these non-linear stream-of-consciousness internal thoughts of a solipsist– his protagonist/self.

    I discovered that the narrator/Wallace is never too shy to reveal his true self, or his real motive:

    “This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person’s life are ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn’t even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside the regular sequential time clock we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another-word English we all communicate with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spill out the contents of one split-second’s flash of thoughts and connections…”.

    This is unparadoxical and utterly banal magical thinking.

    Wallace can only show us negatively what consciousness is and how it works, and after reading this sad little tale, I can confidently report that there’s hardly anything bleaker or more depressing than the non-linear stream-of-consciousness internal thoughts of a solipsist.

    Anyone who focuses so obsessively on self and his own thoughts is suicide-bound.


  • I haven’t read IJ. But that excerpt on difficulty experienced by DFW on describing his impressions and thoughts – outside the linearity of time and semantic sequencing “can be”, if not “is”often experienced by many other non fatalistic mortals too, I guess.

    For eg. the fleeting impression that crosses one’s mind while looking at a beautiful painting in an art gallery.

  • Krishna, the quote was from Good Old Neon. I know Wallace is talking about experiencing the infinite in a discrete slice of time– I’m calling bullshit on his sincerity in telling the story.

    It’s another one of his sick jokes.

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