DFW, one

Josh Dean, NYT editor, explaining DFW’s particular literary gift:

But the thing that always struck me was that he could sizzle your synapses with intelligence and insight and literary pyrotechnics, but you didn’t need to read his sentences twice. They were brilliant and also colloquial. How he pulled that off is a literary voodoo I might never understand.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, DFW’s Pomona College colleague, letting me pimp my favorite author and my favorite tv show all in the same post:

He was, in fact, extremely fond of The Wire — he stopped me in the hall one day last year and said, look, I really want to sit down and pick your brain about this, because I’m really developing the conviction that the best writing being done in America today is being done for The Wire. Am I crazy to think that?

David Foster Wallace, himself, explaining his respect for and the essence of good teaching:

It might be that one of the really significant problems of today’s culture involves finding ways for educated people to talk meaningfully with one another across the divides of radical specialization. That sounds a bit gooey, but I think there’s some truth to it. And it’s not just the polymer chemist talking to the semiotician, but people with special expertise acquiring the ability to talk meaningfully to us, meaning ordinary schmoes. Practical examples: Think of the thrill of finding a smart, competent IT technician who can also explain what she’s doing in such a way that you feel like you understand what went wrong with your computer and how you might even fix the problem yourself if it comes up again. Or an oncologist who can communicate clearly and humanly with you and your wife about what the available treatments for her stage-two neoplasm are, and about how the different treatments actually work, and exactly what the plusses and minuses of each one are. If you’re like me, you practically drop and hug the ankles of technical specialists like this, when you find them. As of now, of course, they’re rare. What they have is a particular kind of genius that’s not really part of their specific area of expertise as such areas are usually defined and taught. There’s not really even a good univocal word for this kind of genius–which might be significant. Maybe there should be a word; maybe being able to communicate with people outside one’s area of expertise should be taught, and talked about, and considered as a requirement for genuine expertise.

Sorry if this place gets a little funereal or mushy as I push through a lot of interviews, a lot of eulogies, and his entire published body of work. You should start with Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise, recently made available free online by Harper’s Magazine.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Too sad. Poor guy.

    I’m planning to plow through Infinite Jest again as soon as I get through Anathem. Which I thought was going to be a quick read, until about the last 1/5, when it would only be a quick read for maybe a theoretical physicist.

  2. I’ve really enjoyed what DFW has written. I’d also recommend his Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. I am planning on showing my students some chunks from it, like the proof that there are an equal number of points between 1 and 2 as there are between -infinity and +infinity.

  3. @Kate, I thought Infinite Jest would be a quick read until the first 1/5.

    @Nick, the length third citation in this post is all about his book on infinity, and the ability of specialists to verbalize complicated conceptual knowledge.

  4. yo dan, what’s up with three thought-provoking posts in two days. loving them all. wishing i could devote the time to my blog that you put into to yours.

    keep it coming!

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