Thursday, April 5, 2012


Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. -Simone Weil
    David Foster Wallace was a man concerned with paying attention. His now famous speech at Kenyon College (collected in a book titled This Is Water) is all about paying attention to what is going on around us. His most well-known work, Infinite Jest, is filled with characters struggling to be more attentive to what matters and less obsessed with what does not. And his collection of short stories, Oblivion (from this month's What Should Kester Read?), is one tale after the other about the things that are happening on the periphery of our lives, the people that we're missing, and our failure to listen and be listened to. It's the ad man trying to keep the attention of a focus group while himself failing to see the "free climber" just outside the window. It's the substitute teacher having a nervous breakdown while the student narrator daydreams and the police panic. It's the screams of a baby, heard but not properly attended to. These are stories of how difficult it is to give our undivided attention to the people and situations that need them most. It's the saddest and most somber of any of Wallace's writing; his essays are funnier, his novels more hopeful, his speech is both and more. Like darker parables, one could argue that these stories are too depressing to be helpful and miss the fact that they are warnings, and that their hope is found in the fact that we still have a chance to heed them. We can still make the choice to change. We can still take the time to listen. We can still make the effort to attend.

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