Make No Mistake, This is Mostly a Good Thing

Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays (2006) by David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

The book is an assortment of essays (10), which were written for different publications (e.g., Harper’s, Rolling Stone, Gourmet, etc.), the earliest published in 1992.

I know you’re wondering already—because my wife asked, and she never asks—about the title. It is the title of an essay that was written for Gourmet magazine in 2005, wherein DFW details his visit to the Maine Lobster Festival, an essay that eventually begins raising ethical and philosophical questions about animal cruelty and the relationship between morality and aesthetics.

Let that sink in for a moment and you’ll have a decent idea of the abilities of the author, who finds life and meaning everywhere through a simply stated but maddeningly demanding-to-practice formula: he pays attention. And this is generally regarded as his greatest, most transcendental skill. Past the surface, past the first meaning, deep into any given object that enters his comprehensive gaze, DFW perceives significance in it all. Cultural, relational, personal, emotional, spiritual, whatever—it’s all there.

The real joy and fortune for readers is his power to communicate. He applies the same attention he gives the world to his writing. And because of that, the voice and verve of each piece resonate. Something is built in even the shortest essay that compels you to continue as if you’re in a real conversation. DFW transfers the capacity to pay attention to the reader, which provokes the careful thinking about the topic at hand that accompanies all good writing.

The content of the collection ranges from John McCain’s candidacy campaign in 1999 to book reviews of a biography and dictionary of usage to the rise and impact of political radio to an elegant response to 9/11.

Editorially, I think it was a bad decision to begin the book with an essay about his reporting from the Adult Video News Awards, but I am admittedly a prude who lives in the South. Even still, I didn’t find much structurally or rhetorically appealing about the piece.

However, I routinely teach two of the essays from this collection: “A View from Mrs. Thompson’s,” DFW’s Midwestern coverage of 9/11, and “Consider the Lobster.” I also include passages from “Authority and American Usage,” the sixty page treatise on the importance of writing, which uses The Dictionary of Modern American Usage as its topical locus. (And this essay changed and constructed all sorts of conceptual approaches to and beliefs about composition for me.) All three pieces present the unlikely benefits of cynicism if it can be coupled with kindness, a kindness that manifests in really close attention. Maybe respect would be a better word, rather than kindness, and maybe skepticism, rather than cynicism, but when put together, they (whichever it is) equal the critical eye. DFW shows you how to respect something by demonstratively respecting the objects of his writing. A multitude can be learned here, but I’d like to point out more clearly two things:

1) To write about something well, we must look at it closely. And only considering something important enough to be looked at closely will enable us to write about it well. This is the respect. We must respect things to know them, which, if true, makes automatic respect a prerequisite to getting to know something (or someone), as if respect is the attractive impetus that calls young men to pay attention to young and pretty women. But it’s the idea that all young women are attractive, the operating under the assumption that all things demand respect already by virtue of their existence, their being a part of our world.

2) From the careful inspection of small and seemingly singular things comes really significant understandings of larger things. The first section of “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” is titled Synecdoche, which means that the part is used (or can be substituted) for the whole, like DNA. It reminds me of a Pirsig quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of the mountain, or in the petals of a flower.” Whatever you think of as ultimate truth can be found in any object of this world. We must only look at it close enough to see. And writing, for some of us, can serve as our microscope or window, or even as our eyes.