Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Gift for a Graduate

The literary world lost one of its most brilliant players last September when David Foster Wallace (author of the novel Infinite Jest and the essay collection Consider the Lobster, among others) took his own life. The son of a philosophy professor and an English teacher, Wallace grew up in a family where language took center stage.

In March, The New Yorker published a lengthy piece about Wallace by journalist D.T. Max. I've just learned that Viking Press (a division of Penguin) intends to publish Max's book about Wallace, likely in 2011. The biography is intended to be a "cradle-to-the-grave narrative about Wallace’s life and the historical-cultural backdrop against which he produced his work."

In his New Yorker piece, Max wrote that Wallace believed that good writing should help readers to “become less alone inside.” He quoted Wallace's sister Amy as saying “I think he was always afraid that the last thing he wrote would be the last thing he wrote.

Max also tells us that from 1997 on, Wallace worked on a third novel, entitled The Pale King, which he never finished. His drafts, which his wife found in their garage after his death, amount to several hundred thousand words, and tell of a group of employees at an Internal Revenue Service center in Illinois, and how they deal with the tediousness of their work. The partial manuscript—which is structured as a mock memoir and which Little, Brown plans to publish next year—expands on the virtues of mindfulness and sustained concentration.

In a commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005, Wallace told graduates that true freedom “means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.” That speech has recently been published in book form: This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. Perhaps you know a graduate for whom this would make a good gift.

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