David Foster Wallace on Ambition and the Motivation to Be Smart

In early 1996, journalist David Lipsky accompanied 34-year-old David Foster Wallace on the last leg of his tour for his breakout novel, Infinite Jest, for an ambitious Rolling Stone interview. The feature was never published, but in 2010, some 14 years after the road trip and two years after Wallace's suicide, Lipsky released the transcript in Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace. Among the many thoughtful, revealing conversations is this remarkably sharp insight by Wallace on the TV vs. the arts, the capacity for intellectual stimulation, and the challenge of creating the motivation for it in the first place:

You teach the reader that he's way smarter than he thought he was. I think one of the insidious lessons about TV is the meta-lesson that you're dumb. This is all you can do. This is easy, and you're the sort of person who really just wants to sit in a chair and have it easy. When in fact there are parts of us, in a way, that are a lot more ambitious than that. And what we need ... is seriously engaged art that can teach again that we're smart. And that's the stuff that TV and movies -- although they're great at certain things -- cannot give us. But that have to create the motivations for us to want to do the extra work, to get those other kinds of art.... Which is tricky, because you want to seduce the reader, but you don't want to pander or manipulate them. I mean, a good book teaches the reader how to read it.

Clay Shirky, of course, has written a great deal about the enormous intellectual and creative resources that are being opened up as we shift away from TV in Cognitive Surplus. But Wallace's point about motivations resonates particularly deeply with me as I consider my role -- and Brain Pickings' highest aspiration -- to motivate people to be interested in things they didn't know they were interested in until they are.

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This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

Presented by

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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