A month later, while I was browsing the shelves of a Minneapolis bookseller plugged by Garner, Magers and Quinn, I sighted Consider the Lobster, a collection of DFW essays. I opened to a random page and saw that I was looking at a review of Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (ADMAU). I was intrigued by the logrolling and read a bit.
There are moments in one’s life when one remembers being exposed to something remarkable for the first time. I recall that in 1977, while a freshman at college, I heard Mozart being played at orchestral volume on a good stereo. It transfixed me. Thirty-two years later I still recall the wonder and thrill of this moment I recognized the beauty and genius of Mozart (and classical music in general) while standing in the doorway of a college dorm room. A similar feeling came over me as I began turning the pages of DFW’s essay on Garner’s ADMAU. The writing was distinctive: DFW uses footnotes that are sometimes pages long and sometimes contain their own footnotes; he uses acronyms and abbreviations frequently and in unusual ways; he employs sesquipedalian and obscure words with beauty, because he—in the way that Picasso mastered realism before proceeding to abstraction—earns the right to use uncommon words and does so with taste, purpose, and flair. I bought the book.
What a joy! I started in the middle of the book with "Authority and American Usage," DFW’s 60-page book review of ADMAU. Of course this is unlike any book review I had ever read. Besides its length, the review is a sprawling tour: the “language wars;” DFW’s youthful fascination with language; wedgies; language and race relations; and Garner’s ethos. And whatever role he fulfills at any particular moment—whether humorist, instructor, or rhetorician—DFW shows that he has mastered it.
His writing is funny. I was particularly taken by his reference to his father’s misspelling of “meringue,” which he dates to precisely September 14, 1978. You must love someone who has preserved the date of a parent’s spelling error and put it before a national audience twenty years on. And then, a couple of pages later, while talking about the arbitrary nature of spelling, in searching for a word to use as an example, he circles back and just happens to use “meringue.” At times the essay is funny enough to make one roar out loud, which I did as I read the section on Academic English and two given examples of obscurantism. The first example was one unearthed by Garner, an excerpt from a Sacramento Bee article:
If such a sublime cyborg would insinuate the future as post-Fordist subject, his palpably masochistic locations as ecstatic agent of the sublime superstate need to be decoded as the “now all-but-unreadable DNA” of the fast industrializing Detroit, just as his Robocop-like strategy of carceral negotiation and street control remains the tirelessly American one of inflicting regeneration through violence upon the racially heteroglassic wilds and others of the city.
The next example was taken from the Village Voice:
At first encounter, the poems’ distanced cerebral surfaces can be daunting, evading physical location or straightforward emotional arc. But this seeming remoteness quickly reveals a very real passion, centered in the speaker’s struggle to define his evolving self-construction.
The piece is amusing throughout.
It’s also informative and very scholarly. First DFW demonstrates that he possesses the necessary credentials. He introduces his concept of the “SNOOT,” someone who pays close attention to words and language. Once his credentials are established—and they are beyond question—he then embarks on an explanation of the battle between the prescriptivists (those supporting rule-based use) and the descriptivists (those supporting use that is merely consistent with societal norms and not primarily rule based). His explanation of the concepts and rationales advanced by these competing camps is thoughtful, precise, and presented clearly. DFW sees the language landscape, understands it, and is able to explain it well.
But beyond this, his work is one of persuasion. Cicero would be proud. (In fact, having read at least some Cicero, I can say that Cicero likely never approached the level of persuasion found in this piece.) Like a spectacular trial lawyer, one who is humorous, thoughtful, and engaging, DFW convinces us of the need for a kinder and gentler view of usage, one that is grounded not just in rules, but also in community and love for one’s fellow man. The ethical nature of his appeal is at first hidden, but eventually, as the authority of the essay takes hold, bared:
Progressive liberals seem incapable of stating the obvious truth: that we who are well off should be willing to share more of what we have with poor people not for the poor people’s sake but for our own: i.e., we should share what we have in order to become less narrow and frightened and lonely and self-centered people.
Whether we agree with this particular statement or not, it is clear that DFW’s essay is genuinely concerned with public virtue, including the way that we conduct the “language wars.” In short, any prescriptivist reading the essay would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved to begin searching for accommodation on some usage issues. And any descriptivist would have to have an empty head not to understand the importance of at least some fixed usage rules.
The essay on Garner’s work is stunningly beautiful, unique, and profound. But Consider the Lobster also contains nine other amusing and penetrating essays. The subjects range from the vapidity of sports autobiographies and the interesting phenomenon of a porn convention, to a see-everything tour with the 2000 McCain campaign and the manner in which “mainstream America” reacted to the 9-11 attacks on the day they occurred.
Here I stand, more than ten years after the first of these essays appeared in print, long after his works have been pronounced genius by many in the literary establishment, to tell you that this is a man of great genius. Of course, I am also not afraid to share with you my opinion that Mozart is a genius—as demonstrated by other posts on this blog—so being ten years late is not perhaps my greatest impertinence.