I was psyched to speak with David Foster Wallace’s biographer on The Juggernaut’s most recent episode, because I’m glad to try and remove some of the weird negative mystique that comes with DFW’s name these days. It’s so strange that this kind of thing can happen: this ultra-sensitive writer who’s really quite serious about trying to reach people and to help people — to do more than just criticize our world, to actually try and offer comfort and assistance — can become (insofar as he’s known at all) one kind of punchline. I mean, it’s cool that some folks know DFW at *all*. That’s a good thing. Plus my guess is he’d laugh at some of the jokes about pretentiousness and long-windedness, because they’re often pretty funny. I just don’t want people to lose sight of the main reason to know Wallace’s name, which is that: he was one of the giants of our cultural landscape. He just was.
But I also know how I sound when I talk or write about DFW. Like a cultist. Like a schoolmarm. Like I’m reducing this idiosyncratic, intellectually peripatetic, brilliant, funny guy to an object lesson in seriousness. I don’t want to do that! The guy’s writing still provides me so much joy and comfort and love. By choice or by nature or by the annoyingness of my personality, I spend an awful lot of time alone. I don’t have a partner right now, and I don’t have a lot of close friends. When my phone buzzes it’s usually one of three nuclear family members or Cousin Josh, none of whom live close by. I’m productive as hell, but I also tilt toward loneliness. Being able to read Wallace (and, granted, other great writers, too) is a way to get out of my head and into someone else’s, to keep that thing going called empathy.
And Wallace’s head is still such a great place to be. Yes, there are serious things in his books. Yes, “Infinite Jest” is long. But there’s so much else! So much that’s amazing. Cousin Josh listened to the D.T. Max/DFW episode and texted that it finally started to make him interested in Wallace, and that made me feel so good. I hope maybe it did the same for some of you. Josh’s first question was, “What was the name of that cruise ship piece again?” And I told him and I will tell you, it is “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” and it’s in an eponymous collection that’s brilliant and which I recommend. But for free, right this very moment, you can read the original cruise-ship piece from Harper’s in 1996, to get a taste of it via its original (truncated) version.
I also should mention that Deadspin, of all places, just this week published a column extolling the virtues of another unbelievably great DFW essay called “Federer As Religious Experience” (and other tennis-related nonfiction of Wallace’s, collected in a new book called “String Theory”). I can absolutely recommend the essay about tennis player Michael Joyce, too (which is also collected in “A Supposedly Fun Thing…”), but the Federer piece is another great entry point into Wallace, and you can read it for free, right this moment, on the NY Times web site.
So, like, please. Do it. Please don’t assume that I’m just being a pedant when it comes to DFW. (I’ll cop to being a pedant. Just not in this case.) The guy really was that great, and I think there’s a non-zero chance that if you read him, you will become a better person. I may not be a great person. But I’m a better one than I’d have been had DFW not written.