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kottke.org posts about Consider the Lobster

David Foster Wallace on John McCain’s 2000 Presidential campaign

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 26, 2018

As I said recently in the newsletter and in my media diet post for March, I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace’s 2005 collection of nonfiction. Each story I listen to is somehow been better than the last, and Wallace’s piece on John McCain’s failed run for the Republican nomination in 2000 was no exception. You can the as-published article in Rolling Stone, but it’s worth seeking out the much longer unabridged version in Consider the Lobster or stand-alone in McCain’s Promise.

While the piece is a time capsule of circa 2000 Republican politics — which politics seem totally quaint by today’s standards; for instance, Wallace describes McCain as one of the most right-wing members of Congress — what makes it so great and relevant is the timelessness of Wallace’s conclusions about politics, why politicians run, why people vote (and don’t vote), and why anyone should care about all of this in the first place.

There are many elements of the McCain2000 campaign — naming the bus “Straight Talk,” the timely publication of Faith of My Fathers, the much-hyped “openness” and “spontaneity” of the Express’s media salon, the message-disciplined way McCain thumps “Always. Tell you. The truth” — that indicate that some very shrewd, clever marketers are trying to market this candidate’s rejection of shrewd, clever marketing. Is this bad? Or just confusing? Suppose, let’s say, you’ve got a candidate who says polls are bullshit and totally refuses to tailor his campaign style to polls, and suppose then that new polls start showing that people really like this candidate’s polls-are-bullshit stance and are thinking about voting for him because of it, and suppose the candidate reads these polls (who wouldn’t?) and then starts saying even more loudly and often that polls are bullshit and that he won’t use them to decide what to say, maybe turning “Polls are bullshit” into a campaign line and repeating it in every speech and even painting Polls Are Bullshit on the side of his bus….Is he a hypocrite? Is it hypocritical that one of McCain’s ads’ lines South Carolina is “Telling the truth even when it hurts him politically,” which of course since it’s an ad means that McCain is trying to get political benefit out of his indifference to political benefits? What’s the difference between hypocrisy and paradox?

That’s just one of the many passages that reminded me of the 2016 election and the appeal to voters of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders (and also of a certain Barack Obama in 2008 & 2012) but also makes you think deeply about how and why millions of people decide to put their support and faith and trust into a single person to represent their interests and identity in our national government.

See also Why’s This So (Damn) Good (and Topical)? David Foster Wallace and “McCain’s Promise”.

Switzerland makes it illegal to boil a live lobster

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 20, 2018

Come March 1, it will be illegal to throw a lobster into a pot of boiling water. Chefs and home cooks alike will need to quickly kill the lobster first and then cook it.

The first such national legislation of its kind in the world calls for a more humane death for lobsters: “rendering them unconscious” before plunging them into scalding water. Two methods are recommended: electrocution or sedating the lobster by dipping it into saltwater and then thrusting a knife into its brain.

The same law also gives domestic pets further protections, such as dogs can no longer be punished for barking.

The measure is part of the broad principle of “animal dignity” enshrined in Switzerland’s Constitution, the only country with such a provision. The Constitution already protects how various species must be treated and specifies that animals need socialization.

That means cats must have a daily visual contact with other felines, and hamsters or guinea pigs must be kept in pairs. And anyone who flushes a pet goldfish down the toilet is breaking the law.

But really, this is just an excuse to revisit a sublime piece of journalism that David Foster Wallace wrote in 2004 for Gourmet magazine called Consider the Lobster (later collected in a book of the same name). In it, Wallace travels to the Maine Lobster Festival and comes away asking similar questions that the Swiss had in formulating their law.

So then here is a question that’s all but unavoidable at the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the U.S.: Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? A related set of concerns: Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does “all right” even mean in this context? Is it all just a matter of individual choice?

Wallace being Wallace, he then dives deep into these questions at a length of several thousand words, a bunch of which are:

Since, however, the assigned subject of this article is what it was like to attend the 2003 MLF, and thus to spend several days in the midst of a great mass of Americans all eating lobster, and thus to be more or less impelled to think hard about lobster and the experience of buying and eating lobster, it turns out that there is no honest way to avoid certain moral questions.

There are several reasons for this. For one thing, it’s not just that lobsters get boiled alive, it’s that you do it yourself — or at least it’s done specifically for you, on-site. As mentioned, the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, which is highlighted as an attraction in the Festival’s program, is right out there on the MLF’s north grounds for everyone to see. Try to imagine a Nebraska Beef Festival at which part of the festivities is watching trucks pull up and the live cattle get driven down the ramp and slaughtered right there on the World’s Largest Killing Floor or something — there’s no way.

The intimacy of the whole thing is maximized at home, which of course is where most lobster gets prepared and eaten (although note already the semiconscious euphemism “prepared,” which in the case of lobsters really means killing them right there in our kitchens). The basic scenario is that we come in from the store and make our little preparations like getting the kettle filled and boiling, and then we lift the lobsters out of the bag or whatever retail container they came home in …whereupon some uncomfortable things start to happen. However stuporous the lobster is from the trip home, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you’re tilting it from a container into the steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook its claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster’s fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you can usually hear the cover rattling and clanking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature’s claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around. The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming). A blunter way to say this is that the lobster acts as if it’s in terrible pain, causing some cooks to leave the kitchen altogether and to take one of those little lightweight plastic oven timers with them into another room and wait until the whole process is over.

Quack This Way

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 26, 2014

One of the last interviews David Foster Wallace gave was with Bryan Garner, a lawyer and lexicographer who became friendly with Wallace due to their mutual love of language. That hour-long interview is reproduced in Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing.

David Foster Wallace was at the center of late-20th-century American literature, Bryan A. Garner at that of legal scholarship and lexicography. It was language that drew them together. The wide-ranging interview reproduced here memorializes 67 minutes of their second and final evening together, in February 2006. It was DFW’s last long interview, and the only one devoted exclusively to language and writing.

It was Wallace’s piece featuring Garner in Harper’s, Tense Present, that cemented him as a favorite writer of mine, even before I tackled Infinite Jest. Wallace later expanded the essay to 62 pages in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.

Consider the Lobster

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 23, 2013

Speaking of lobster, you could do much worse today than reading David Foster Wallace’s classic piece for Gourmet about attending the Maine Lobster Festival. As you might imagine, Wallace quickly veers from the event at hand into something more interesting and unsettling for Gourmet’s gourmet readers: do lobsters feel pain and do they suffer for your dinner?

Given this article’s venue and my own lack of culinary sophistication, I’m curious about whether the reader can identify with any of these reactions and acknowledgments and discomforts. I am also concerned not to come off as shrill or preachy when what I really am is confused. Given the (possible) moral status and (very possible) physical suffering of the animals involved, what ethical convictions do gourmets evolve that allow them not just to eat but to savor and enjoy flesh-based viands (since of course refined enjoyment, rather than just ingestion, is the whole point of gastronomy)? And for those gourmets who’ll have no truck with convictions or rationales and who regard stuff like the previous paragraph as just so much pointless navel-gazing, what makes it feel okay, inside, to dismiss the whole issue out of hand? That is, is their refusal to think about any of this the product of actual thought, or is it just that they don’t want to think about it? Do they ever think about their reluctance to think about it? After all, isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and its overall context part of what distinguishes a real gourmet? Or is all the gourmet’s extra attention and sensibility just supposed to be aesthetic, gustatory?

Still Considering the Lobster

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 30, 2008

In a letter to the editor from Janice Blake of Milton, Massachusetts printed in the December 2008 issue of Gourmet magazine, a belated appreciation of David Foster Wallace’s 2004 piece, Consider the Lobster.

I began subscribing to Gourmet in 1973, but I have to admit that over the years, I haven’t been able to read each issue from cover to cover. I’m just now getting around to reading August 2004’s issue. “Consider the Lobster,” by David Foster Wallace, was a delight — it went well beyond informative and entertaining; it was challenging and thought-provoking. I vividly remember the spate of letters that followed its publication. In fact, I was so impressed with his article that I recently decided to write to say thank you both to the author and to you. What a shock it was to find out that he had tragically passed away. Thank you, Gourmet, for being so willing to change and grow over the years, and for challenging all of us faitful readers to do the same.

As David Foster Wallace argued in Consider

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 09, 2007

As David Foster Wallace argued in Consider the Lobster, a recent study indicates that lobsters feel pain, an unpleasant finding for an animal that’s often boiled alive. But as Wallace says:

Is it possible that future generations will regard our present agribusiness and eating practices in much the same way as we now view Nero’s entertainments or Mengele’s experiments? My own initial reaction is that such a comparison is hysterical, extreme — and yet the reason it seems extreme to me appears to be that I believe animals are less morally important than human beings; and when it comes to defending such a belief, even to myself, I have to acknowledge that (a) I have an obvious selfish interest in this belief, since I like to eat certain kinds of animals and want to be able to keep doing it, and (b) I haven’t succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system in which the belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient.

The NY Times Book Review’s 100 notable books

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 25, 2006

The NY Times Book Review’s 100 notable books of 2006. Making the list are several kottke.org notable books: The Ghost Map, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Consider the Lobster, and The Blind Side.

How do audiobook producers deal with things

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 20, 2006

How do audiobook producers deal with things like footnotes, photos, interesting punctuation, and the like? “The voice manipulation, for which audiobook producer John Runnette used a ‘phone filter’ — a voice-through-the-receiver effect used in radio dramas — was an attempt to aurally convey Mr. Wallace’s discursive, densely footnoted prose.” Includes sample audio with examples. (thx, bill)

Review of David Foster Wallace’s Consider the

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 13, 2005

Review of David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster compares him to Mark Twain, which I’d never heard before but seems apt.

Consider the Lobster

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 09, 2005

If I remember correctly, Tense Present (published in the April 2001 issue of Harper’s) was the first bit of writing I ever read by David Foster Wallace. I didn’t fall for him immediately. I liked the article fine, but as I thought more about it in the following weeks — particularly in light of other nonfiction I was reading in magazines and newspapers — the more I liked it. A quick search on the Web revealed that not only had this Wallace written more nonfiction for magazines, he’d written entire books and was considered by some to be the best young author writing in America. A few months later I read Infinite Jest and it was love.

Tense Present is one of the essays included in Consider the Lobster, a collection of nonfiction by Wallace due out on December 13th. It’s included under a new name (Authority and American Usage) and is, like many of the other pieces in the book, the “director’s cut” of the original, but re-reading it brought back good memories about, well, how good it was to discover Wallace’s writing.

Several of essays in CtL I’d read before, including the title essay from the Aug 2004 issue of Gourmet (which according to Gourmet EIC Ruth Reichl almost didn’t make it into the magazine at all). I read The View From Mrs. Thompson’s in Rolling Stone shortly after 9/11 and remember thinking that it was the best reaction to 9/11 that I’d seen, but reading it again 4 years later, the impact wasn’t quite the same…until the last 2-3 paragraphs when you remember that he spends the whole essay setting the table so he can hit you with the whole meal in one mouthful and you then spend several hours attempting to digest what you’ve just read.

The View… and Up, Simba, a piece on John McCain’s 2000 bid for President that also ran in Rolling Stone (at half the length under the title The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys, and the Shrub), were my favorites, but they’re all so good (if you enjoy reading nonfiction in Wallace’s signature style, which I very much do). A common complaint of Wallace’s writing is that it’s not very straightforward, even though clarity seems to be his purpose. I don’t mind the challenge the writing provides; I read Wallace for a similar reason Paul is reading surrealist poetry, to make my brain work a little bit for its reward. In The End of Print, David Carson outlined his design philosophy in relation to its ultimate goal, communication. Carson used design to make people work to decipher the message with the idea that by doing that work, they would be more likely to remember the message. I’d like to think that Wallace approaches his writing similarly.

Lobstergate

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 05, 2004

Lobstergate: David Foster Wallace and his Gourmet article about the Maine Lobster Festival. Wallace’s article is fantastic.