LEFT: "David Foster Wallace with Friend," by Marion Ettlinger
I. Electrified Paté
I started reading DFW because he killed himself.
I'm interested in smart people who suicide.
But I kept reading him because I recognize him as one of my tribe--not because of his affliction (which runs in my family but mercifully has not lodged in me) but because of the acrobatic way he thinks [thought].
--sample of DFW thinking--
"We 'know,' as high-school graduates and readers of Newsweek... a near infinity of truths that contradict our immediate commonsense experience of the world. ... [We know] that our thoughts and feelings are really just chemical transfers in 2.8 pounds of electrified paté. That we are mostly water, and water is mostly hydrogen, and hydrogen is flammable, and yet we are not flammable."
The books of DFW are almost always checked out from the library--like those of David Sedaris and other popular essayists (or of those people whose personal pain made public has bumped them, at least temporarily, into celebrity status).
You have to request the books be held for you.
I'd gotten and enjoyed Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.
Yesterday I thought I'd just check and see if any of DFW's other books might be on the shelf.
The only one that was was Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity.
Call number QA 9 .W335 2003.
Here's why it wasn't checked out.
It sits right next to QA9 .W52:
Principia Mathematica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1910-1913), by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell.
Still, I'm somewhat interested in the philosophy of science (along the lines of "Why wouldn't Star Trek's transporter really work?"), and I trusted that DFW would tell an amusing story, so I checked it out.
After writing about war all day (painful), last night I started reading the book. [* re writing]
Reading it was weirdly restful the way a new pain is, because it gives you a rest from an old pain.
Not that the book is actually painful.
DFW truly does make it an amusing story; but following it requires brain work, especially for someone like me who barely knows the language of mathematics. That work feels like, maybe is a relative of, pain.
--sample of me thinking--
Last night I was about to stop reading on page 70, out of 305 pages, and I thought,
I should blog about this, and I should mention what percentage of the book I have read so far.
But I don't know how to figure out the ratio of 70 to 305.
So I kept reading until page 97, and now I can say that I'm close to one-third through.
Even if I didn't know that 97 x 3 = almost 305,
I could physically see the ratio by looking at the scrap of paper (with "QA W335" written on it in stubby library pencil by me) marking my place in the closed book.
(From what DFW says, I'm doing math the Egyptian way--they always related it to physical realities.
You don't need calculus to build a pyramid.)
Anyway, the book is very interesting, if you're interested in thinking about thinking.
I am, in a lazy sort of way;
but the thing that excited me most about the book so far was the paragraph on p. 52 that justified my still living sense of injustice at the way Mr. Dresen, my ninth grade algebra teacher, answered the one question I ever asked about mathematics.
In the early days of the semester, my first in high school,
I asked Mr. Dresen WHY algebra worked.
I didn't know it then, but I--not gifted intuitively in math--was struggling to make the huge leap from thinking about numbers as representing oranges, even if the oranges are getting twisted and chopped up into weirder and weirder bits, to thinking of numbers as pure abstraction.
And Mr. Dresen said I shouldn't worry about it, but just memorize the formulas.
Women have lots of stories about being put down in math when they were girls, but I'm 100% sure this had nothing to do with me being a female and everything to do with Mr. Dresen being a basketball coach who got roped into teaching algebra because he had memorized the formulas.
I'm sure because while I felt like a victim of injustice at the time, I also intuited:
HE DOESN'T KNOW WHY ALGEBRA WORKS.
Well. This poor guy. Now I know how hard it is to know why algebra works and how even harder it is to explain it.
So now along comes DFW, who does know and can explain.
And who says to my outraged thirteen-year-old self --quote:
"The trouble with college [(or high school)] math classes
––which classes consist almost entirely in the rhythmic ingestion and regurgitation of abstract information, and are paced in such a way as to maximize this reciprocal data flow––
is that their sheer surface-level difficulty can fool us into thinking we really know something when all we really 'know' is abstract formulas and rules for their deployment.
"Rarely do math classes ever tell us whether a certain formula is truly significant, or why, or where it came from, or what is at stake.
[DFW's footnote to above sentence:
"And, of course, rarely do students think to ask––the formulas alone take so much work to 'understand' (i.e., to be able to solve problems correctly with), we often aren't aware that we don't understand them at all.
That we end up not even knowing that we don't know is the really insidious part of most math classes.]"
Or, if you're someone like me, you know you don't know,
...AND you don't even 'know' the formulas because you simply balked like a mule and refused to learn something so boring as symbols and rules that you, at thirteen, mistakenly thought (and no one corrected you) were without meaning.
Final note on DFW:
Depression gets a lot of press these days; but I still hear people who don't understand that it's more like, say, cancer than like a bad hair day.
But even though I do know it's like cancer, I still look at pictures of DFW with his dog friends (he liked dogs!) and ask,
How could you do it?
You had everything and more.
And therein, in trying to answer that, lies is the use of abstract brain work.
Trying to understand other people is like the higher maths:
you (that is, I) just have to suck up the fact that other people's experience, their reality, won't necessarily match up point to point with yours (mine).
And that we can't understand it by plunking formulas onto it, like cookie cutters onto a batch of cookie dough.
We're not adding oranges anymore.
Understanding other people, which is maybe another word for loving other people, is way harder than that, way weirder, way, way more abstract,
and, ultimately, if your brain doesn't explode, more rewarding.
II. * Re writing
[This could/should? really be a separate post, but I was writing stream of consciousness and I actually had veered off in the middle of the above stream to write this, so I decided to pull it out and give it its own B-head, but leave it as part of the whole.
I also just want to note that I can see here what a sponge I am (or what spongey material words are?).
If you've read DFW you can probably tell I've absorbed some of his odor, like a cheese next to fish in the fridge.
That's one reason I don't usually read a lot when I'm in the middle of a writing project---all of a sudden I'll start writing in a different style. ]
"Writing" is too active a word for what I do with children's nonfiction.
Because of severe limits on word count and reading level, what I do mostly involves choosing what not to write about, so it's often more like "erasing" than writing.
The more I do this, the more I realize why people who write children's nonfiction (and human beings in general) often just recycle formulas.
I mean, writing well at grade-school level requires being an incredibly well-informed and thoughtful kind of poet of prose.
Once I took (some might say wasted) the time to learn more about smallpox, for instance, I'd just made the work harder on myself.
Now, instead of "writing" (recycling) that comfortable sentence we've all read before about how Europeans brought the disease to the Americas, I have to discern what I really want to say about what is, of course, a much broader and deeper story.
The thing is, though, the old formulaic sentence is factually true, and compact,
so I'll end up writing something very similar, thus reinventing the wheel;
but now knowing WHY and HOW, which pleases me but makes little difference to the book.
It does make some difference... but quite possibly for the worse.
I mean, it's really hard to write clearly and briefly about complexity.
(I'm getting better but I'm not good at it. My earliest geography books are muddy, my latest ones less so. Blogging is good practice.)
I'm motivated to keep trying to express complexities in a clean, clear and short way,
not just because understanding the material makes the work more interesting
but because I remember being outraged as a child by how formulaic nonfiction was.
I mean, really remember.
I can see the dirty surface of the light-wood, round library table where I sat in sixth grade working on a report on Russia.
And I remember my anger and frustration with the geography book in hand (the same kind I used to write--possibly, in fact, by the same publisher). Specifically I was angry that the list of Natural Resources was just a list--it didn't tell you what any of these things (molybdenum?) were.
Well, now I know why--the extremely limited word count means you, the author, have to choose between writing a list or using the space to explain ONE thing.
Not only does efficient use of space (facts per inch) dictate writing the list, but it's also easier and faster because you don't have to know what molybdenum is to write it down.
(It's a mineral used in steel alloys.)
I've heard children's nonfiction writers called hacks (in the literal sense of being a conveyance for rent to take anyone anywhere) and sausage makers.
This is often true, in my experience. But not because we are stupid or uncaring.
On the contrary. The field is full of nice, bright women with BAs in English who love books.
But children's book publishing is an industry, like children's education is, and like education, it's unbelievable poorly paid. (OK, better than McDonald's, but it's a white collar equivalent.)
Everyone from the publisher on down is under incredible economic pressure to publish or perish--not in the academic sense, but in the sense of debt collectors coming and taking away your printing press.
And even scarier these days, when books themselves are looking more and more like a horse and buggy.
So we get algebra teachers who may be geniuses at coaching basketball but sure aren't good at teaching algebra.
P.S. Whoah. Was that an abrupt ending?
Soon I'm off to visit my auntie in Milwaukee, Land of Cheese Cows, so adieu for now.
 "We 'know', as high-school graduates..." from DFW's Everything and More (W. W. Norton, 2003), p. 22
 "The trouble with college classes..." ibid., p. 52