On nearly the one year anniversary of his suicide, it's only fair to take a moment and reflect on the imitable David Foster Wallace. (Yes, irony is posting about this, and not about what happened on this date eight years ago.) He lived for fiction, but I preferred his essays, on a level of appreciating exceeding the Gladwells of the world. Even when they were perversely, spectacularly wrong, the dude could freaking write. And that he did, on a broad array of subjects, some more accessible than others.
The genius in D.F.W. didn't merely stem from his spectacular prose, awesome though it may have been. What Wallace had was a knack for was the process of articulating those random thoughts that every person has, following them to their logical conclusion when any sane person would have quickly dismissed them. Or, he was even more formidable at discerning keener insights that never ordinarly come across your mind, but seem stunningly obvious, even crucial in retrospect.
Allow me to cite one brief example of the former; on the topic of sport, as I'd imagine that most of you are already tuning out by this point. Did it ever occur to you, about how so many athletes are stereotyped as complete knuckleheads in the classroom, but are able to memorize complex schemes and a playbook? Athletes use implicit calculations regularly. They've learned through routine and muscle memory, and likely could not articulate these principles through standard means. It's a thought that I've had figuratively twenty thousands times. Did I bother writing it down, fleshing it out, and making it into any sort of respectable argument? No, because I am not a genius. I am not Dave Wallace (a former Tennis prodigy, even.)
Unless you're one of those rare mutant virtuosos of raw force, you'll find that competitive tennis, like money pool, requires geometric thinking, the ability to calculate not merely your own angles but the angles of response to your angles. Because the expansion of response-possibilities is quadratic, you are required to think n shots ahead, where n is a hyperbolic function limited by the sinh of opponent's talent and the cosh of the number of shots in the rally so far (roughly). I was good at this. What made me for a while near-great was that I could also admit the differential complication of wind into my calculations; I could think and play octacally. For the wind put curves in the lines and transformed the game into 3-space. Wind did massive damage to many Central Illinois junior players, particularly in the period from April to July when it needed lithium badly, tending to gust without pattern, swirl and backtrack and die and rise, sometimes blowing in one direction at court level and in another altogether ten feet overhead. The precision in thinking required one to induct trends in percentage, thrust, and retaliatory angle--precision our guy and the other townships' volunteer coaches were good at abstracting about with chalk and board, attaching a pupil's leg to the fence with clothesline to restrict his arc of movement in practice, placing laundry baskets in different corners and making us sink ball after ball, taking masking tape and laying down Chinese boxes within the court's own boxes for drills and wind sprints--all this theoretical prep went out the window when sneakers hit actual court in a tournament.
Simply put, as he later restated:
The sort of thinking involved is the sort that can be done only by a living and highly conscious entity, and then it can really be done only unconsciously, i.e., by fusing talent with repetition to such an extent that the variables are combined and controlled without conscious thought.
Is there another, accessible, non-fiction writer who provided such a level of concentrated value and thought in each paragraph? His (numerous) footnotes were rich wellsprings of discussion in and of themselves, rich enough to warrant lengthy essay responses. Selfishly, I can only see his demise as a tragedy for the ages.