People are always dying, every day, all over the world, even dying too early. Our superconnected, hypermediated world usually rings the alarms and the mourning bells only when someone somehow famous or celebrated does it. I usually am sad when someone at least reasonably not a bad person passes and gets loudly eulogized in the echoing hall of mirrors that is our infosmogged culture, but I try to keep some perspective, because so many suffer and expire without so much as a ripple in that data-pond.
Nevertheless, out of all of the tragic early losses from the ranks of famous cultural workers, there is one that I truly really wish were not so. Not Whitney Houston, Nora Ephron, Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse, even Roberto Bolaño or Elliot Smith - yeah, sad, but David Foster Wallace truly stands out above anyone else I can think of as such an exceptional mind that it's literally a huge loss to the world that he will not be around, to continue to grace us with more of what he did. I say this not simply because he was such a skilled writer - which her certainly was - but really more because the wisdom of so much that he wrote and said (i.e. in interviews) is so consistently extraordinary and just plain useful to me as a human being (and I would think to others as well). He combined the gift of stellar talent in his craft with such an extreme intelligence and, most importantly, such an extreme concern and compassion for his audience and humans in general, I just am staggered when I think that we may have had, should have had, as a nation, as a people, as a society, 20 or 30 more years of benefit from having him around, doing stuff. I literally think he was on a level of compassionate, spiritual intelligence comparable to Gandhi, MLK, the Dalai Lama... take your pick.
I confess that I was late at appreciating this. I still have about five-sevenths of his entire output to read. But almost every time I read anything of his I am just blown away and... enlightened, even if just a little bit. There are not many writers that I could say that about. Yes, there are many that are good, and/or very smart, very clever, advance the form, etc. But to also just express things that teach me how to be a better human being - that's rare.
I'm reading his second book of short non-fiction, Consider The Lobster, and what made me want to write this post is his 1999 piece contained in that volume, originally for Harpers, called "Authority and American Usage" (original title, "Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage"). You might get a few pages into this and think, so what, it's a really smart guy reviewing a book about another really smart guy being a stickler for grammar and so what. But there's so much more to it, because on the way to explaining why the dictionary he's reviewing is a good one, he swerves and swings out into tangents, as most DFW pieces do, that seem at first to be unearned departures, but turn out to be completely relevant and coherent with his main point. In this review he discusses abortion, racism, classism, child development, his own childhood and the traumas therein, democracy, the crisis in education and especially the teaching of English, white privilege, and more - all in a review of a dictionary! And most striking is his personal discussion of his efforts as a college Lit teacher to get his students to be better writers, so they can go further in our society (and in turn make our society better, also), out of a sincere and deep caring and compassion for those students that is just unparalleled...
He was just super unique and valuable, and I really wish he were still alive and around to care about and help his fellow humans like he so obviously and deeply did.