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David Foster Wallace’s Self-Help Books

David Foster WallaceAfter the author’s 2008 suicide, David Foster Wallace’s books, or at least many of them, wound up in the library at the University of Texas at Austin. Maria Bustillos, having reviewed many of those books, has discovered a rather sad and touching fact among the shelves.

One surprise was the number of popular self-help books in the collection, and the care and attention with which he read and reread them. I mean stuff of the best-sellingest, Oprah-level cheesiness and la-la reputation was to be found in Wallace’s library. Along with all the Wittgenstein, Husserl and Borges, he read John Bradshaw, Willard Beecher, Neil Fiore, Andrew Weil, M. Scott Peck and Alice Miller.

Having struggled with depression through much of his talented and productive life, Wallace didn’t die out of apathy. Bustillos discovered numerous books underlined and notated, the work of a careful reader. Clearly this was a man who wanted to get well. Despite writing dense and complex fiction, Wallace went to rather facile and simplistic therapeutic fare, hoping beyond hope, apparently, that they would contain the answer.

What if, I have to wonder, he had gone to another source that his literary crowd would have dismissed even more quickly than Andrew Weil and Scott Peck? What if Wallace had sought help from the Bible? Might he have read John 11 and found hope in the words, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Might he have discovered what Mary and Martha learned, that hope comes in the person of Jesus even as we face the darkest days of our lives.

Yes, you might dismiss these thoughts as the typical fare of the Evangelical Christian, providing a bandaid of Jesus on the gaping wounds left by human existence. Dismiss them if you will, but is my suggestion less plausible than the one that Wallace sought in those underlined and notated books.

Had David Foster Wallace attempted to “medicate” himself with Christ, there would have been repercussions. Perhaps we would not have gotten Pale King, the unfinished novel to be released this Friday, but perhaps he would have lived to see his good looks diminish.

Posted in American Literature, Contemporary.

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