Have You Ever Considered the Lobster?

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David Foster Wallace looks at the world with a unique perspective that combines curiosity with sarcasm and wit. In his collection of essays entitled Consider the Lobster, he explores everything from politics, grammar, and ethics with an incredibly sharp eye and an even sharper pen. All ten essays are phenomenal, but a few stand out because they literally make the pathways in my brain change direction.

Wallace is at his most hysterical in an essay entitled, “Authority and American Usage.” In this article, he decides to explore and debate the “dictionary wars.” Did you ever stop to wonder just who is the authority of the English language? Who decides how to properly use words and punctuation? The truth is, there is no official organization that sets the ground rules; there are just a bunch of “experts” that argue relentlessly through the reference books they write and publish. This sets the stage for Wallace to air his grievances with the system (or lack thereof). He delves into the question of what truly defines langauge and the “rules” attached to it. What follows is a fascinating foray into the sub-culture of SNOOTS (Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance or Syntax Nudniks of Our Time),  the fine art of writing, how languages change over time, and why the rules exist in the first place. Even though Wallace himself is a SNOOT, he is infinitely curious on why he is such a stickler to the rules. In an effort to answer this question he investigates how language works both with and without the rules and how culture, class, and academia influence and in some cases “control” the accepted language rules. Most interestingly, he explores why most people don’t care about grammar. While the topic of grammar is usually considered quite boring, this is where Wallace is at his best. His wit and humor makes the bland study of words and punctuation entertaining, especially when his temper gets the best of him. Wallace doesn’t like to be wrong!

“The View from Mrs. Thompsons” is a tender, realistic, and touching account of 9/11. While a wholly individual memoir of the event, the emotive sense of the piece exemplifies what it was like to be an American on that day. No matter who you are where you were, Wallace has your words. At the same time, he puts out a challenge to view that day in a new light — there is more than one America out there and Wallace wonders which one we all see.

In “Up, Simba” Wallace functions as a reporter for Rolling Stone as he tags along with the John McCain campaign of 2000. The focus is on McCain’s political ideas, but Wallace also takes the time to explain the more technical aspects of campaigning. In particular, how the camera and sound guys work and how different media personnel relate (or not) to one another. Wallace is a keen observer of the mundane, everyday facets that surround him, which is part of what makes him a unique writer. Even the boring can be interesting if viewed through a certain lens. Aside from the technical crew, he also finds himself drawn to McCain’s honesty. He wonders if that honesty is real or created. Thus begins an investigation of how marketing ties into campaigns and how that might be why Young Voters avoid the polls and why people don’t trust politicians. Voters these days know the game as they are inundated with ads and manipulated every day by every industry on the planet including Capitol Hill. Even if a politician tells the truth, most people are so jaded they can’t really be sure it’s the honest truth. Is there even a such thing as the total truth these days? Now there’s something to ponder.

Lastly, in the title essay “Consider the Lobster,” Wallace visits a lobster festival in Maine. Where most people would soak in the local flavor and bask in tourist traps, Wallace walks in thinking of the lobster. Not as a meal, but as a sentient entity. As he stands in front of the largest lobster cooker in the world, his mind begins to ponder a deeply moral and ethical question: Do lobsters feel pain when they are being boiled alive? It seems like a simple question, but it leads to other issues regarding food production and consumption. He posits that there is a disconnct between people and the animals they eat. We don’t like to think about the animal where meat comes from or whether the lobster getting thrown into a boiling vat of water can consciously feel pain. Have we lost our compassion or are we simply kings of the food chain? With this unique perspective, Wallace offers a thought provoking take on the old adage “You are what you eat.”

Wallace likes to hang out in left field in everything he writes.  He often sparks debate, but he always fuels the fire of independent thought and consideration.  The lobster never had a better advocate.

c.b. 2011

18 thoughts on “Have You Ever Considered the Lobster?

  1. I wish I hadn’t read that about the lobsters. I always stop and “pet” the lobsters in the seafood displays. I don’t think of their fate and frankly I don’t care that much for lobster…I’m a crab fanatic though. I don’t think about what goes on behind the scenes because I don’t want to give up meat. I like meat. I don’t think I want to read that one but the essays on grammar and John McCain sound interesting.

    Especially the way your describe them.

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    • I had no idea what I was getting into when I started reading the lobster article (for all I knew the title was some little joke Wallace was making – he does that sometimes!). I’m not much of a seafood fan, so I had absolutely no idea how lobster was prepared. Yikes!

      If anything, Wallace forced me to look at my food a little differently. For one, I’m a little more appreciative of what I eat.

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  2. Susanne

    Okay reading about the lobster is enough to make us all Vegans! I tend to think that all politicans say what people want to hear and it’s not always the truth of what they believe. Wallace really took the time to look deeper into things and then share his insights. Thanks for sharing.

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    • Wallace actually provided much more detailed information about lobster preparation (I went with a “G” rating for this essay) and let’s just say that I now eat more vegetables than I ever did before. 😉 Still, I appreciated how he kept the focus more on how people think about food and how we are a bit spoiled when it comes to access and consumption of food.

      As I watch the debt ceiling debate rage, I can’t help but wonder what DFW would have to say about it . . . the “showmanship” is ridiculous!

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  3. As one who views lobsters as likeable creatures, I feel Wallace’s pain. Once my S.O. came home from a business trip to Boston with a box of live lobsters and the express instruction that once they die, they must be cooked immediately. All night I monitored the lobsters, rising every hour on the hour to tend to them. To this day, I have never forgiven him for putting me through this ordeal. He insisted I cook them, even after having been so diligent with their well-being, and providing them names. I’ve never forgiven him for that.

    Thank you for the recommendation, I am off to purchase this book.

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    • Oh my goodness, I’d hold a grudge, too.

      Being an animal lover, it was hard to read Wallace’s account, but it certainly opened my eyes not only on account of lobsters but every animal that ends up on our dinner plate.

      I hope you enjoy the book! Fair word of warning, though . . . the first essay in the book is a little jarring. I actually had to come back to it after skipping ahead to the next essay first. 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by and hope to see you around again.

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  4. Howdy. Do you know anyone who’s interested to sell his/her copy of any David Foster Wallace book? Preferably Infinite Jest. Consider the lobster would be great too. Thank you!

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    • I’m pretty attached to mine, sorry. Ever since his unfortunate death it’s getting more difficult to find used copies, (plus, I’ve noticed those who read him tend to keep his books because they are so good!). Good luck! And thanks so much for reading. 🙂

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      • Yup, I think they’re so good too. I’ve just read one chapter of The Pale King from the e-book I downloaded. The one where the pretty girl talks with the weird guy about how she met her husband in a mental hospital. It was very interesting.

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  5. Jenn,
    I’ve been saving “The Pale King.” It’s the last novel we’ll ever have from him, so part of me can’t let him go just yet. From what I’ve heard, its very good even though unfinished.

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  6. I ‘ve heard so much about him, mainly from you and have him on my ‘to do’ reading list. The grammar thing would be most appealing to me as I’m a stickler for correctness though I don’t get it right myself half the time. When you told us about the ‘I Write Like’ site last year, I put in some of my work and his name came up so I really need to read him. Another item on the reading bucket list to get to.

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    • I was fascinated by the grammar article, because it’s something I struggle with so much. He makes valid arguments for and against the rules before leaving it up to the reader to decide which side wins. Ha! 😉

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