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Writing & Reading about The Big Questions

I’ve been reading a lot of obituaries and tributes to David Foster Wallace since I wrote last, and I’m struck by how deeply touched people are by his work, and in some cases how puzzled they are by their deep reaction to his death.

What is it about this man that moved us so?

For me, I think it was because to read his work was to watch someone struggle with The Big Questions, such as how do we live authentically? What is real sincerity?


Laura Miller, writing a tribute on Salon.com, opens this way:

“He talked about how difficult it was to be a novelist in a world seething with advertisements and entertainment and knee-jerk knowingness and facile irony. He wrote about the maddening impossibility of scrutinizing yourself without also scrutinizing yourself scrutinizing yourself and so on, ad infinitum, a vertiginous spiral of narcissism — because not even the most merciless self- examination can ignore the probability that you are simultaneously congratulating yourself for your soul-searching, that you are posing. He tried so hard to be sincere and to attend to the world around him because he was excruciatingly aware of how often we are merely “sincere” and “attentive” and all too willing to leave it at that. He spoke of the discipline and of the abrading, daily labor such efforts require because the one imperative that runs throughout all of his work is the intimate connection between humility and wisdom.”

Sincerity. Attention. Narcissism. Discipline. These are, indeed, some of The Big Questions, and it seems to me, in a world where publishers often sound more concerned with market share than literary quality, and where sales figures top good reviews, that not enough writers of David Foster Wallace’s ilk are given the chance to publish these days. And yet, readers, it appears, are starved for books that ask the large, meaty questions.

“The intimate connection between humility and wisdom.” Isn’t that a great phrase?

I was told by someone very wise that the true definition of humility is “the ability to remain teachable.”

Could it be that in this present political climate, where anti-intellectual smugness and faux-Christian arrogance spit in the face of true intelligence and compassion, we are also hungry for a little humility and wisdom? I know I am.

Do you know Iris Murdoch, the British writer, university lecturer and prolific and highly professional novelist, who dealt with everyday ethical or moral issues, sometimes in the light of myths? I recall someone once asked her, “What single theme has sustained your writing over the years?” She replied, “I only ever write about one thing: how to be good.” I just drink in her work.

There is a very sweet, and hugely entertaining book out just now, called “The Uncommon Reader,” by the British playwright and humorist, Alan Bennett. Publisher’s Weekly says this about it:

“This novella sends Queen Elizabeth II into a mobile library van in pursuit of her runaway corgis and into the reflective, observant life of an avid reader. Guided by Norman, a former kitchen boy and enthusiast of gay authors, the queen gradually loses interest in her endless succession of official duties and learns the pleasure of such a common activity. With the dawn of her sensibility… mistaken for the onset of senility, plots are hatched by the prime minister and the queen’s staff to dispatch Norman and discourage the queen’s preoccupation with books. Ultimately, it is her own growing self-awareness that leads her away from reading and toward writing, with astonishing results.”

You see the power of good books? Not that I am against all light reads and ‘purely entertaining’ books. I read a lot of them over the years, but like any light, sweet snack, they eventually left me craving more nourishing fare, which is a wonderful thing! Sure, it was Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” which I read at fourteen (and understood very little) that made me want to be a writer, but it was Tom Robbins “Jitterbug Perfume,” Anne Fairbairn’s “Five Smooth Stones,” and Mary Stewart’s “Merlin Trilogy,” which taught me how to love reading. I had to go back to those books and others like them to instruct me, step by step, how to appreciate Henry James, Edith Wharton, Graham Greene and William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Nabokov, Ellison, Virginia Woolf… well, you get the picture.

But, to read something by someone like David Foster Wallace, who wrestled with what it means to be human with the same life-and-death urgency of Jacob wrestling with the angel – well, that leaves its mark on us, as it did on Jacob. I believe it enriches us – makes us strive to be better people, more careful of the things we do and leave undone, a little more compassionate, a little more empathetic f. What else, other than a good book, can place us in the mind and heart of a person on the other side of the globe, utterly unlike ourselves to all outward appearances, and yet make us feel we are not alone, that we are similar in
many ways, as Athol Fugard’s novel, “Tsotsi,” about an unnamed murderous hoodlum in the South African townships, did to me.

So, let us read more and read deeper, Let us encourage our writers and our artists, who work so hard, in such emotional isolation, who get paid so little, are rejected and criticized so often and so heartlessly, and who offer us such wonderful gifts. Don’t ask that writer you know how well their book’s selling (probably not well) or if they got a six-figure deal (probably not). Ask them how the process of writing is helping them stay sane and alive. Ask them what they’re learning, and what they’re hoping to pass on. And, if you can, share with them what their work has meant to you. I guarantee, hearing something like that can make all the difference.

Copyright 2008 Lauren B. Davis For permissions: laurenbdavis.iCopyright.com

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