Book Review: Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace

Posted June 24, 2013 by LeahAdmin in Reviews / 27 Comments

Book Review: Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
Published by Back Bay Books on 2006
Pages: 343
Genres: Essays, Non-Fiction
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchased

While reading A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again last summer, I was alternately blown away by David Foster Wallace’s intelligence, chuckling at his sense of humor, frantically looking up words in my phone’s dictionary app, and baffled as to why I was reading a 70-page essay about a director whose films I’ve never seen (David Lynch). Mostly, though, I loved it. I was crazy about the way Wallace can make any topic interesting and just how ridiculously smart he is. I don’t know how it took me a year to read another of his books, but I finally read Consider the Lobster!

This collection features essays on topics as broad as the porn industry, the humor in Kafka’s work, John Updike’s penis obsession, and conservative talk radio hosts. Once again, my mind was pretty much constantly exploding while reading these essays. DFW has this way of making me feel at once really stupid (How have I never thought about that? What does that even mean? This is kind of over my head.) and also kind of smart. (Hey! I get this part! I’m learning new crazy new concepts, and now I know what words mean!) Although he uses a lot of fancy vocab that I’m not familiar with, I like the way he makes me work for my understanding. I have to look up words in the dictionary to understand his points sometimes, and that is rewarding.

One of my favorite pieces was “Authority and American Usage,” a 60-page review of Bryan Garner’s new Dictionary of Modern American Usage. I’m interested in grammar, and this essay tickled all of my fancies. In addition to talking about the merits of this book, Wallace discusses the differences between the two schools of grammar, prescriptivist and descriptivist, and makes really interesting arguments for and against them. I had no idea there WERE multiple approaches to grammar usage and my inner word nerd was totally fascinated.

“Up, Simba” is about Wallace’s week as a Rolling Stone  journalist on John McCain’s campaign trail before the 2000 primary. He describes (the totally unglamorous) life on the trail, contemplates the inscrutability of John McCain as a person, and offers really interesting insights into campaign strategy. I was intrigued to learn exactly why saying, “I’m not going to vote because I don’t like either candidate and I don’t want to participate in the system,” is invalid. Essentially, if all the moderate people don’t vote because of apathy, only the more extreme  people entrenched in their parties will vote, and they will vote the way their parties tell them to. So if you don’t vote, you’re effectively voting for the party-backed candidate.

The title essay was one of the most fun to read. DFW covers the Main Lobster Festival, where thousands of people flock to eat lobster and take in the “local flavor,” which of course is destroyed by the thousands of tourists descending upon the region. This is really only a tiny part of the essay, though. Mostly, Wallace is concerned with the ethics of eating lobster. Do lobsters feel pain? If they do feel pain, do they have the emotional capacity to experience it as unpleasant? Why, at the MLF, is the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker such a highly advertised spectacle when a World’s Largest Killing Floor at the Nebraska Beef Festival would be totally unimaginable? It’s a really entertaining, thought-provoking essay about our relationship with the food we eat that raises questions about how we justify eating living things.

I loved Consider the Lobster and Other Essays; David Foster Wallace is entertaining, funny, informative, and incredibly smart. Sometimes the footnotes-within-footnotes are difficult to follow (especially in “Host,” which uses mapped boxes connected by arrows instead of actual footnotes), but the added insights were always fun to read. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more of DFW’s work! Does anyone have recommendations for where to go from here? I don’t think I’m quite ready for Infinite Jest.

Some words I had to look up:

Solipsist, synesthetic, satyriasis, anomie, senescnece, dysphemism, solecistic, salvos, pleonastic, sesquipedelian, heliogabaline, abstruse, autotelic, involuted, androsartorial, lapidary, cancrine, amentia, hortatory, synechdoche, athwart, gonfalon, luxated, germane, prolegomenous, nictitating, torsions, styptic, jingoistic, atavistic

  • I have nothing useful to contribute, but the title of this book makes me think of all the crustaceans popping up in fashion lately. Have you noticed all the lobsters and crabs and things? I’m confused by fashion in general… But lobsters? I’d rather eat them than wear them.

    • I must be totally out of the fashion loop, because I have no idea what you’re talking about 😛 Maybe nautical-themed things are “in” because it’s summer? I definitely wouldn’t want to wear lobsters, either… but I also don’t want to eat them.

      • Nothing like Katie jumping in with some random nonsense comment. It probably is just a summer thing, but I don’t recall so many shellfish in years past- they aren’t very pretty. I’m going to find a way to blame this on Lady Gaga for wearing those lobster glasses like 3 years ago and pretend I’m not insane. Deal?

        • Haha, I’m sure it’s a real thing – fashion is bizarre that way. I think we’re safe blaming many fashion strangeties (here I go, making up words) on Lady Gaga. I’m counting the days until I see a faux-meat dress at Target.

  • Jennifer @ The Relentless Reader

    Look at all those glorious words! Oooh, they make me giddy with happiness! I think this would be a book I would totally dig. Thanks for the review!

  • That sounds awesome! Great review, makes me want to pick it up 😀 Considering the format, do you think getting a paperback versus Kindle would be better?

    I really like essays. They’re incredibly difficult to write and I love how thinkers can display a wide range of interests and insights through essays.

    • I don’t have an e-reader, so I really can’t say if it would be better on Kindle vs. paper. I think Kindles make footnotes easier, though, so that would be a plus — correct me if I’m wrong about that.

      • It’s just that sometimes the formatting can be wonky on ereaders…. I got it in paperback so it’s all good 🙂

        • Ah, okay. Enjoy!

  • I have not read David Foster Wallace, but I do know that Heather is also a big fan, so I think it’s something I will have to pick up soon.

    • Yes, you must!

  • I joined a summer readalong for Infinite Jest, but baulked out at the last minute. This book sounds fascinating, funny, and bristling with ideas, and your review made me think of Umberto Eco’s Travels With A Salmon
    Will try to read Consider The Lobster soon.

    • There are tons of resources for reading IJ, so I don’t think it would be too difficult to do without a group — although it is always nice to have people to talk to about reading. I’ll look into the Eco book!

  • I just skimmed this review–I still need to read this book. I will come back and leave more of a comment then.

    For now, I’ll just say…I love DFW.

    • He might be my biggest literary crush right now.

  • I think you’re ready for Infinite Jest. My IJ prep was reading DFW’s biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, followed by Consider the Lobster. I wouldn’t recommend reading the bio before IJ, though, because there are some spoilers!

    IJ is not as hard a read as you think it is, I promise! Though at the end your brain might explode, but that’s a good thing, right? 🙂

    • That’s good to know! I was thinking about reading the biography first, but now I will refrain.

      I’ve heard such good things about Infinite Jest, so I get nervous that I won’t “get it” or will struggle with it. I’m glad to hear it’s not so hard! Brain-exploding endings are the absolute best 😛

      • I wrote a post about the ending, I believe I called it “WTF Happened at the End of Infinite Jest?” DON’T go read it, obviously it’s spoiler city 🙂 I get hits on that post pretty regularly, so I know I’m not the only one who closed the book and said WHAT THE F.

        • Haha I’ll try to remember to read your post after the book! I think it’s a sign of an awesome ending if so many people are compelled to do Google searches about it 😛

  • Wow, I would have to look up those words too! I tend to get lost with books fulls of words I have to look up which is a shame 🙁

    • There weren’t difficult words TOO often, so looking them up didn’t disrupt the reading flow that much.

      • But remember English is not my mother tongue 😛

  • I haven’t delved into DFW yet, for shame! I love the list of words you included at the end, I’ll have to keep that in mind if I pick up his books, and grab a dictionary to keep by me at all times!

    • Dictionaries are essential! There was one footnote that was FULL of huge words that I didn’t know. I was so glad I looked them up because the use of those words was actually part of a joke, and I totally would not have even realized it was funny if I hadn’t looked them up.

  • I’ve never read any of DFW’s work, and your review makes me feel shameful for it!! 🙂 This sounds fascinating…time to peruse his stuff to add things to my TBR…

    • Oh no, don’t feel ashamed! There are far too many books out there to feel shameful about not having read particular ones. But that said, DFW is amazing and you should read him!