There's a small theme running through some of these essays(1): People trying to bridge the gap between two different camps. In "Authority and American...moreThere's a small theme running through some of these essays(1): People trying to bridge the gap between two different camps. In "Authority and American Usage" DFW praises Garner for bridging the gap between the Prescriptionist and the Descriptionist usage experts. In "Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky" Frank impresses DFW by weaving together two rival approaches to literary criticism. "Up, Simba" is an encomium to John McCain's ability to appeal to Young Voters (presumably of all political stripes(2).)
Herein lies the major weakness of the book. This desire to reconcile two different camps, to me, comes across as a little wishy-washy. Compare "Up, Simba" with Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, one of my favorite books about a political campaign. Thompson really impressed me with his uninhibited, unvarnished attack on mealy-mouthed candidates who try to appeal to the center at the expense of "the hippie and freak vote," a bloc of voters which Thompson clearly embraces. The book is full of passion and vitality, which I felt a little lacking in DFW's(3) book.
Of course, I realize that there is more than one discussion group here on GR dedicated to DFW and he is not without his very devout defenders, so let me just say while I did not enjoy this book as much as others, I recognize he has his merits and respect those who got more out of this book than I did(4).
(1) I question calling them essays. Most of them are journalism pieces, and in fact DFW excels most in reportage. He has an amzing talent for finding and describing the telling detail. It's the more analytical "essay*" parts of the pieces that let me down.
* Essay in the sense that Montaigne used the word--a "trial" of one's own opinion.
(2) Partisanship, at least, is not emphasized when he discusses YV.
(3) Armchair Psychoanalyzing On My Part: Considering how DFW ended his life, I couldn't help thinking that perhaps this lack was in part a symptom of depression. It's also entirely possible that the fact that my knowledge of DFW's suicide, in some way, colored my reading of this book.
(4) In "Authority and American Usage" DFW espouses what he calls "the Democratic Spirit," which he defines as a rigorous defense of one's own opinion combined with a humble respect for another person's views. While an admirable outlook in the real world, in a book of essays this too struck me as a bit of a hedge and a lack of desire to man the bastions and put up a fight. Depressed people often seek to avoid conflict.
It's funny how Borges writes essays in the same amused, pedantic voice he uses in his fiction. I read that one of his essays (Approach to Al-Mutaism)...more It's funny how Borges writes essays in the same amused, pedantic voice he uses in his fiction. I read that one of his essays (Approach to Al-Mutaism) was actually later included in his Ficciones. I guess he proves that the line between fiction and nonfiction is as thin as the distance between Achilles and the tortoise a few days into the race. (less)