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"Pen of iron, tongue of fire / tightening the wid'ning gyre ..."

"I teach college English part-time. Mostly Lit, not Composition. But I am so pathologically obsessed with usage that every semester the same thing happens: once I've had to read my students' first set of papers, we immediately abandon the regular Lit syllabus and have a three-week Emergency Remedial Usage and Grammar Unit, during which my demeanor is basically that of somebody teaching HIV prevention to intravenous-drug users. When it emerges (as it does, every term) that 95 percent of these intelligent upscale college students have never been taught, e.g., what a clause is or why a misplaced only can make a sentence confusing or why you don't just automatically stick in a comma after a long noun phrase, I all but pound my head on the blackboard; I get angry and self-righteous; I tell them they should sue their hometown school boards, and mean it. The kids end up scared, both of me and for me. Every August I vow silently to chill about usage this year, and then by Labor Day there's foam on my chin. I can't seem to help it. The truth is that I'm not even an especially good or dedicated teacher; I don't have this kind of fervor in class about anything else, and I know it's not a very productive fervor, nor a healthy one—it's got elements of fanaticism and rage to it, plus a snobbishness that I know I'd be mortified to display about anything else."
— David Foster Wallace, footnote 6 from "Authority and American Usage"


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 29th, 2009 03:13 pm (UTC)
I just finished reading that essay! I'm slogging through "Consider the Lobster" and continually in awe of DFW's prowess. The man's a master painter with words. Inspiring.
Aug. 29th, 2009 04:38 pm (UTC)
I just finished the lobster essay. I can't believe he wrote it for Gourmet magazine. Disturbing stuff. It reinforced my belief that I should not eat anything that once had eyes. That's tough, but the essay may provide a little extra willpower or, at the very least, enough information to help me resist the temptation to visit Burger King on days when I'm uptight and feeling very much like a carnivore.
Aug. 29th, 2009 09:58 pm (UTC)
Funny how reading certain things can have that effect on a person. Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" had a significant effect on my decision not to eat red meat, and I'm thinking DFW's "Consider the Lobster" may act the same way on my crustacean consumption.
Sep. 2nd, 2009 02:14 am (UTC)
I love this passage - it's so readable, and passionate and visual because you can see that his hands would be flailing about as he speaks... I love that.

I have a whole post I was going to write about DFW but it doesn't look like that's gonna happen anytime soon so maybe I'll just gut myself about it here.

He wrote the book Infinite Jest. It's over 1,000 pages long and intimidating as hell just on size alone, but for lots of other reasons, too.

And it was my friend Jane's favorite book; one I'd hoped to read and talk about with her but obviously that boat has sailed.

So it's been sitting and sitting and gathering dust and getting dusted and gathering dust...

And then I heard about this whole big national movement called Infinite Summer, a plan to read the book in regularly scheduled increments and have discussion groups and dedicated websites and even an LJ community! I saw that Colin Meloy, lead singer for The Decemberists signed up and I thought, "Hell, they're touring - if he can do, I sure as hell can do it..." and I got to something ridiculously stupid like page 19 and stopped and never picked it up again and now it's gathering dust again.

Why can't I read this book? What if it's as wonderful and passionate and visual as footnote 6?

I'm still eating lobster, no matter what he says, though.
Sep. 2nd, 2009 03:36 am (UTC)
Well, the print won't fade, as Russ used to holler at me from the dinner table while I languished in the living room over the newspaper.

I'll probably brand myself as a Philistine here, but after hearing so many people carry on about DFW, I wasn't that impressed by the writing in Lobster. His fiction might well be brilliant, but nothing I read in Lobster gave me any incentive to find out. Did I dislike him? Not at all, and I liked the passage above so much that I sent it to all of my freshman composition students. Maybe my expectations were too high.
Sep. 2nd, 2009 12:35 pm (UTC)
Great Russ quote.

I'm also a titch afraid I won't "get it" when everyone else does. Apparently there are footnotes and indexes and charts and chapters of sidebars... *sigh*

I know.
Sep. 2nd, 2009 01:21 pm (UTC)
The footnotes are funny and interesting at first, but after a while they become more of a distraction than anything. I was thinking, "Just tell the story, dammit."

Aug. 31st, 2009 11:13 am (UTC)
id gladly sit through another Grammer Slammer (even though they dont exist) just for nostalgia sake and knowing what I know now. I know its hard to believe, but so help me god, we didnt know or were taught english in english class. English class meant: receive book, see if book is on SparkNotes, if not find movie, debrief friends on the readings the morning of, take a regurgitate-it-back-to-me quiz on the readings. repeat cycle, this went on for 4 years. so help me christ, my 10th grade english teacher used the SPARKNOTES QUIZZES AND BOOK TESTS DIRECTLY OFF THE WEBSITE for at least 4 or 5 books. whited-out the URL address and made the circles you would click on if you were taking the quiz online, dark so they would appear to be bullets.

best of luck for another great year. any JMC students are lucky to have any combination of you profs, which i'll go to bat for any day as the best journalism school on the planet
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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