Harbinger of Gloom

13 Oct

David Rakoff

So guys, do you ever experience, like, intellectual omens?

Wow, didn’t realize how elitist that was going to sound; let me rephrase. On Monday, someone brings up a movie you’ve never seen. On Wednesday, you see that same movie referenced in a newspaper article. And maybe, just for good measure, on Friday it appears written in clouds across the sky – just kidding. But in all seriousness, these are what I consider intellectual omens, glitches in the Matrix, doses of kismet that may perhaps lead one to discover new music, cinema, obscure political history or, in my case, more often than not, books.

This week’s omen is David Rakoff, whose latest book of essays, Half Empty, was reviewed in the Times over the weekend and from whom I read an essay in the Wall Street Journal on Monday. (What’s that you say? There is perhaps a completely non-kismet explanation for why a publishing author might write an essay for a nationally distributed newspaper in the same month his latest book is being released? To that I say, pish posh!)To clarify, I’ve heard of Rakoff before. I done read his book of essays Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, The Torments of Low Thread Count, The Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems, which I only vaguely remember, in that way most books of essays are easy to forget (I’ve read everything David Sedaris has ever written but couldn’t outline more than five individual pieces).

So Rakoff’s done an about-face in terms of title length, it seems, but from the sound of the Times interview, the latest book is true to form. “In his opening essay, ‘The Bleak Shall Inherit,’ an interview with the psychologist, Julie Norem (author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking) sets Rakoff on an attempt to construct his case for the defensive pessimism (expecting the worst so one will never be disappointed) imbued in the nine essays that follow.” What’s that? A celebration of negative thinking? WHERE DO I SIGN UP.

I haven’t been more excited to revel in my own pessimism since the release of Barbara Ehrenreich’s, Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America (also on my bookshelf and a potential candidate for future bloggage). [I suppose it’s worth noting that the Journal essay is a decidedly less negative exploration of Rakoff’s multi-decade love of New York, as inaugurated by a childhood trip to the city in which he bought a geode and saw a Broadway show. Blah blah blah. (Seriously? A geode?)]

Just in case you aren’t fully convinced, I’ll leave you with two factoids and a quote.

Fact: Rakoff is Canadian. Though I know maligning Canada is in some ways our obligation as Americans (along with learning the Pledge of Allegiance and visiting a mall at least once in our lives) I feel we should in that sense embrace the country’s defectors. Plus, anyone who’s had to live with referring to their currency as “looneys” and “tooneys” is bound to have a sense of humor.

Fact: Rakoff has been diagnosed with cancer, twice. I don’t mean to make light of this, but instead want to note that writing a book of essays espousing negative thinking when you’ve twice been diagnosed with a potentially terminal illness; well, that takes some balls.

Quote: (From an excerpt of Half Empty; talking about his visit to a New York startup during the dot-com bubble. Gosh this sounds familiar?)

“What makes a story really good and Webby,” said one, “is, say, we post an item on David Geffen on a Monday, and then one of Geffen’s people calls us to correct it, we can have a whole new version up by Tuesday.” This was typical Dawn of the New Millennium denigration of print, which always seemed to lead to the faulty logic that it was not just the delivery system that was outmoded but such underlying practices as authoritative voice and credibility, fact-checking, editing, and impartiality that needed throwing out, too. It was a stance they both seemed a little old for, frankly, like watching a couple of forty-five-year-olds in backward baseball caps on skateboards. In the future, it seems, we would all take our editorial marching orders from the powerful subjects of our stories and it would be good (Right you are, Mr. Geffen!). It was a challenge to sit there and be told that caring about such things as journalistic independence or the desire to keep money’s influence at even a show of remove meant one was clinging to old beliefs, a fossil in the making. Now that everything and everyone was palliated by the never-ending flow of revenue, there was no need to get exercised about such things, or about anything, really.”

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