Sunday, September 14, 2008

David Foster Wallace's Youngest Fan

Yesterday, when I heard that author David Foster Wallace had died and I felt a pang of shock and sadness.

I will leave the eulogies to more talented writers and those who were closer to him and his work than I. But I loved his writing, even when it baffled me, which it often did.

His novel Infinite Jest is the most incredible, funny, challenging, maddening and brilliant book I've ever read.

When my friend Anne emailed me today to find out if I head heard the news, she noted that, "...having read Infinite Jest, it was possible we have spent as much time with David Foster Wallace as with some of our close acquaintances." (It is 981 pages long with another 90 or so pages of hyper-detailed footnotes.)

But my favorite DFW book is the collection of essays, A Supposedly Funny Thing I'll Never Do Again.

When I read it, I felt like I had discovered the smartest person in the world; one who could start a sentence with "Existentiovoyeristic conundra notwithstanding..." and at the same time communicate compelling points with ease and clarity, and be staggeringly funny.

The main reason that I'm writing about Foster Wallace's passing here is that for a period of time, starting before he turned two, Ben was also obsessed with this book.

For some reason (was it the book's bright yellow cover, some bit of rhythm in the title?) he always pulled it down from the shelf and demanded - with the tiny bit of language that he had - that I read the title and the cover blurb over and over again.

At the time, Chris posted a short video of this (complete with his own DFW-derived footnote) and even if you've never heard of David Foster Wallace, I encourage you to watch it if you are interested in Hyperlexia.

The video captures the unusual intensity and concentration that a hyperlexic child has for the printed word and language. At the time, we were just beginning to wonder if Ben's development was "normal," and if we should be concerned. We were still more than a year away from our first assessment.

This is the stage of hyperlexia where we, like many parents, saw the quirky gifts, but weren't really seeing the deficits clearly yet - the social difficulties, the need for order and predictability, the sensory challenges.

I love that we've captured this moment in Ben's development: how intent he was on decoding the mystery of the sounds and the letters and learning how they all fit together. You can almost see the wheels turning.

I had always had an idea that I was going to track down David Foster Wallace's email and send this video to him, too. I thought he might appreciate it.

Unfortunately I'm too late.

Rest in peace.


Jordan said...

This is lovely, Christa. I have no doubt that DFW would have appreciated that video of Ben. It's really an amazing video, in hindsight. He's a real sweetie, that's for sure.

Deirdre said...

I'm haunted by knowing he was so deeply doubtful of his gifts and contributions.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad I clicked over to watch the video tonight. I recognize so much of what Ben is doing. The pointing at the words, saying "read." Over and over again.

I was so astounded when Chee was very small and she would take a book and put my fingers to the words and say, "words."

I had picked up on her dominant interest in words so I was trying to talk about the pictures in the stories and not just do straight reading. She wanted no part of it, instead only wanting me to read the text over and over again.

There is so much that we look back on now and say, "A-ha!" about knowing as we do about Hyperlexia.