David Foster Wallace, Jorge Luis Borges and Self-Help: a Potent Mix
Jennifer Schuessler’s super-interesting New York Times post, David Foster Wallace, Self-Help Reader inspired several reading journeys based on the work, life and death of the author who committed suicide in 2008. I wrote briefly about Wallace in 2009, wondering about whether I had unknowingly walked by him at Pomona College, in Claremont, California, where he was a professor, when I was in town to research my book.
The self-help angle was what drew me into the NYT post. When I clicked on the link to Inside David Foster Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library, by Maria Bustillos, at The Awl, I expected perhaps a list of some of the self-help books he read. But what I found is a penetrating, extended essay about Wallace’s life, as illuminated by the (annotated and color-highlighted) self-help books in his private collection, which Bustillos examined in their current home, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. I found what she wrote completely absorbing and well worth the time it takes to read it. And looking at the catalog of the books from his library now at the Ransom Center makes for compulsive browsing, especially discovering those with notations in Wallace’s hand. It also makes you wonder what he – or any writer whose private book collection becomes available for public study – would think, if he could, about people reading notes he scribbled in the margins of those books. Schuessler’s post also led me to Wallace’s 2004 NYT review of a biography of Jorge Luis Borges, Edwin Williamson’s Borges: A Life. In the review, Wallace reveals a lot about the mind of one first-rate writer studying the work of another. Describing Borges’ short stories, he writes: “His stories are inbent and hermetic, with the oblique terror of a game whose rules are unknown and its stakes everything.”