Call them buttonhole books, the ones you urge passionately on friends, colleagues and passersby. All readers have them -- and so do writers. This week, All Things Considered is talking with authors about their favorite buttonhole books. And the series continues all summer long on NPR.org.
If I had to give an alien one book about American life, it'd be A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. Or it would've been, eight years ago. Now I'd hand over Consider the Lobster. They're both by David Foster Wallace.
When Wallace broke in 1996, with his four-course novel Infinite Jest, his readings felt like rock concerts. Women batted their eyelashes, men in the back rows huffed, scowled, envied. Since then, he's collected O. Henry and National Magazine Awards for stories and journalism. He's run in The Best American Essays, even The Best American Sports Writing. He's received a Macarthur "Genius Grant," which you get for being a genius. Just on the stats, you'd have to say we've reached the all-star break of a hall-of-fame career.
Wallace hasn't done another novel. But the essays in Fun and Lobster -- what the author calls "experiential postcards" -- cover food, sports, politics, language. They're a great novel about American life, told in segments. Good writing graffitis its perceptions over the world, and it's impossible to get through a day without a Wallace line. There's his work on the despair-inducing "Professional Smile," which lurks in a hundred cell phone stores and waiting rooms. His on-set description of movie director David Lynch has wrecked most of my romantic relationships. Lynch watches "with a warm and full-hearted interest, sort of the way you look when you're watching somebody you love doing something you also love."
The new book's sharpest pieces are about Sen. John McCain, a pornography awards dinner, and the Sept. 11 attacks, which the author watches with some nice Illinois neighbors. "Part of the horror was knowing, deep in my heart, that whatever America the men in those planes hated so much was far more my America than it was those ladies'." The title piece in Fun -- about a seven-day Caribbean cruise -- is simply the best thing I've read in the past 10 years.
When I leave an art museum, the world becomes a series of beautiful, frozen images. Stepping from a movie, my life is full of zip. After reading Wallace, I feel buzzed-up, smarter -- I'm better company. Books should be like super-coffee, a wake-up slug to the brain. And David Foster Wallace is a controlled substance.
NPR's Ellen Silva produced and edited this story.