Today marks what would have been the 50th birthday of David Foster Wallace, a really terrific writer I admire very much. He died in 2008.
While he’s usually depicted with his signature bandana (which, the way he wore it, reminded me of Madame Defarge), I decided to draw this image snagged from Amherst’s memorial page. He still looks like a scruffy professor moonlighting as a drummer in a grunge band, but he also looks serious and smart and maybe even a little happy.
For the background, I collaged together scans of books and galleys of his work he’d marked up. Many of these are from the Harry Ransom Center, which now maintains his archive. Wallace was a notorious marginalia scribbler, so much that it appears he’s having a dialog with the text itself. I find this fascinating and beautiful—not simply for the act, but for the palimsest-like texture it creates. The page with the big “TK” on it appears to be an early version of “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” one of my favorite essays.
Wallace is largely known for his fiction, but if you’ve never read him before, I’d recommend starting with his nonfiction (like A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again or Consider the Lobster). It’s just as hilarious and brilliant as his novels and stories but probably more accessible to the average reader. His fiction is challenging but worth it, which is why his fans tend to be less of the tepid, “Yeah, he’s okay,” variety and more of the “I fricking love him,” variety. Clearly, I’m in the latter camp.
One thing everyone should read, however, is his 2005 Kenyon College address. Never have I heard the importance of a liberal arts education articulated so clearly, and its core message—to remind yourself: “This is water”—is my daily mantra. Truth is about life before death. It is, indeed.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Wallace.