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Timothy McSweeney is Devastated and Lost

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David Foster Wallace hung himself Friday night.

Many folks chimed in on a long-ish Metafilter thread to say how much they thought of him -- and for the most part, the knee-jerk Wallace/Eggers Haterz Brigade stayed away.

Meanwhile, Dave Eggers left three or four screenfulls of blank space on the McSweeneys home page. On the MeFi thread, I'd suggested someone should get Eggers to write an obit. Then it struck me that would be a bit like asking Paul to eulogize John: You're not likely to get his best work when he's still trying to get his breath back from a kick in the gut.

I've read several of Wallace's essays over the past several years, and I've always been impressed by his obvious, earnest passion. I reckon that I've had Infinite Jest recommended to me more times than any other book. I reckon I ought to get around to reading it, now.


A Random Walk At Travel Writing

I attended the first session of a class in travel writing last night. As I got home, I started poring over my shelves to find examples of the genre. Some leapt out at me. So here's a random-walk, dartboard-at-the-page first quick pass. I sort them here from the most unequivocal examples, to examples I have to justify.

Unequivocal examples:

Lost In The Arctic (Lawrence Millman) [buy]
This is what i think of when I think of "travel writing." The articles are mostly short -- this was great bathroom reading -- and they often fall somewhere between "To Build A Fire" and a less-pejorative version of "Shooting An Elephant" in their focus on the fool-hardiness of a civilized western traveller in the wild. A lot of it is very funny; Millman is far more often a fool than the natives are, but he always strives to be gracious.
Waking Up In Iceland (Paul Sullivan) [buy]
All the travel literature I read before going to Iceland did less to prepare me for the place than this book did. I heard people speaking in their own voices; to be sure, it tells the story that Sullivan wants to tell, and I'm sure he idealizes the scene -- but from what I could see, not much.
Some Orwell selections, especially: "Shooting and Elephant", "Marrakech", and "Looking Back on the Spanish War" (both in A Collection of Essays by George Orwell [buy / Orwell])

I read all of these years ago; I remember that I picked up the book somewhere unexpected, like a Salvation Army or at some church book sale, and read nothing in it for a long time, carrying it from place to place. As I remember it, I then picked it up one day to read "Shooting an Elephant" on someone's recommendation, and then devoured the whole thing. He's an engaging essayist with a penetrating, if jaundiced view. Viz the opening to his essay on Kipling, when he observes that in definding Kipling against the charge of being a fascist, he writes that:

... [T. S. Eliot] falls into the opposite error of defending that which is indefensible. .... Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting. It is better to start by admitting that, and then to try to find out why it is that he survives while the refined people who have sniggered at him seem to wear so badly.

Which is to say, Eric Blair was a tough-minded "T", like me; an INTP, to be specific, or at least, that would be my guess. If he was going to understand the situation, it was important not to mystify it. This is perhaps why he got on so poorly with other socialists....


Democracy in America (Alexis de Tocqueville) [buy]
It's a traveller's tale, to be sure, but a highly conceptual one. Early ethnography, if you will. I've only ever skimmed it; I should really read it, someday, I suppose...


The Assembly Line (Robert Linhart) [buy]
Linhart "travels" from comfortable bohemian Marxism to the world of the (primarily) Algerian workers in a circa-1967 Citroen plant. This is real-world existentialism; it's a reminder that you don't really understand a place until you think you can't get out of it.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (Oliver Sachs) [buy]
It struck me as I was shelf-reading that one of the main criteria that I use to identify something as "travel writing" is that it reads like a visit. And it struck me as my eye hit the spine of this book that Sachs writes like a visitor, to the worlds of his patients. It's like a travelogue into the world of neurological disorder.

That will do for now, I suppose.

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