Death sets a thing significant
The eye had hurried by
A line from an Emily Dickenson poem. What follows in the poem is further example of the first line’s truth.
Many articles in the last week have begun with something like, “the passing of author David Foster Wallace,” and go on to explain the rare heft of the loss – along with the uncomfortable but undeniable implication that some deaths are more important than others – at least to the world-at-large. I was embarrassed to admit I didn’t know who he was, even as many seemed on such familiar terms with him he was simply DFW.
Having majored in English and loving good writing, the tributes intrigued me. The recalling of his famously long sentences and abundant footnoting, to name two. But it was someone’s reference to his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address that got me. After reading just that, I could see why people, especially other writers, would count his death among the tragic and most pre-emptive on record.
Speaking that graduation day to the value of the liberal arts education those students had attained, he indicated that it wasn’t in teaching them how to think, but in what to think about. What to think about. The difference in these two things, and the underlying significance therein is certainly something to think about. I was hooked.
Onto amazon.com where a quick search produced too many choices. Of course I had to buy the collection featuring the revered piece about luxury cruising. And, because I love essays in general, I also selected the 2007 Best American Essays collection, which David Foster Wallace edited and introduced. In it, he essentially derided his role, calling the title “editor” inaccurate – that he really was the “Decider” – he who got to pick the essays. It wasn’t power he was after. He also suggested that no one would be buying the collection because of his introduction, but because of the featured writers comprising the edition.
Death sets a thing significant the eye had hurried by
The passing of David Foster Wallace and my subsequent light reading of his work have made me think again – and differently – about the value of honest writing (and analogously, all creative expression). When they are honest, writers are like firefighters in a burning building, showing the way to freedom with flashlights and hatchets and hoses: the potential of life in a world burning up with hate, aggression, intolerance and downright lies. Writers, through their choice of topic, syntax or novel turns of phrase, can show us the way to think of things differently, or more carefully…or simply to think. When dishonest, writers can contribute to, if not cause the problems, but that’s another essay.
The world needs writers. I believe that writers, through their words, their lives, and sometimes even their deaths, must always write. They must always shine the light.