The Stranger

The Stranger February 23, 2004

The stranger takes a wrong turn in the maze of corridors in the basement of the library. He hears voices ahead and rounds the corner to find a room full of people engaged in a discussion.

The stranger takes a seat and asks what everyone is talking about down here. It's a book discussion group on David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest someone tells him. The group is on its third reading of the book and they're pretty far along — more than 700 pages in, somewhere late in the Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment.

The stranger has never read this book, but he knows a lot about David Foster Wallace. "He's a hack," the stranger says. "The soundtrack to St. Elmo's Fire blew." Someone politely explains that the group is discussing the author David Foster Wallace, not the composer David Foster.

The stranger listens for a bit longer before jumping to his feet and demanding that the group answer a long list of questions about the book.

The group at first attempts to answer the stranger's questions. "She either was disfigured by acid, or not, or maybe it made her even more beautiful," someone says. "That's all in the footnotes — those aren't optional," another says. "Actually, Mario doesn't really have 'hands' as such …" another chimes in.

But the more questions they answer, the more questions the stranger asks.

Finally someone says, "Look, you should just read the book. We've just spent the last six months discussing the first 700 pages and we really don't have time to replay all of that for you just now, okay? If we keep restarting at the beginning every time there's a question, this conversation would never get anywhere."

"Hah!" the stranger says. "You won't answer my long list of questions because you can't answer them! I win!"

The stranger leaves, convinced he is a wise man and a defender of the library from those fools who know nothing about David Foster.

Around the next corner he hears voices again. A discussion group reading Moby Dick.

"Hawthorne," the stranger thinks. "My specialty." He takes a deep breath and begins talking as he enters the room.

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  • Alanna

    Hah. Sounds disturbingly like some of my high school English classes.

  • Silencia

    Oh, that is a perfect, lovely analogy. I come away from it feeling almost sorry for the stranger, wishing he could step away from his self-importance long enough to actually join in and discover the joy of true discussion.
    I hope your analogy will stick with me the next time stranger tries to crash a discussion I’m involved in, because all pity aside, if a person is obviously uninterested in “reading the book” first, then our attempts to educate them are just a frustrating waste of time.

  • none

    Sorry guys,
    My fault. I thought this was a blog about political discussion and I thought discussion was about asking and answering questions. When you ask questions on this site, you’re told that we can’t be bothered with the discussion. That all happened in the past. Too bad.
    What I discovered is that it is a site about writing political prose – which is fine just a bit self-indulgent for me.
    Your analogy is dead on. I did wander into the room. I wandered in because I didn’t see a sign that said ‘keep out – only those who have been involved in this site for 2 years need participate’. If I would’ve seen that sign – I wouldn’t have entered.
    So, you see, in your analogy the fool is not the person wondering around looking for knowledge but the guy stuck in the basement reading the same book for the 3rd time.
    And finally, I never recall claiming ‘I win’ Heck, I didn’t even get a chance to start playing.
    Great site. Enjoy your book.

  • mark

    maybe you’re reading the wrong book……

  • drieux just drieux

    Ok, So clearly I am missing a part of the righteous dialog here, but wasn’t
    Melville, not hawthorn the author of Moby Dick? Which I presume is a part
    of the Art of the ‘argument by analogy’ – but that then makes my head
    spin about brad’s apparent commitment to being a person who is
    somewhat committed to learning, but apparently not committed to
    the idea of studying.
    I’ve tried to find where Brad has raised questions in the comment section,
    but can’t find them. Or is that another Melville Moment?

  • none

    Careful Drieux you ended that post with a question. And the answer to that is in the archives. You think these guys have time to repond to your questions? Oops – there I did it too. Darn.

  • Fred

    Honest discussion is always welcome. As are honest questions.
    Less welcome:
    1) Playing Nedra Pickler-style “gotcha” games — “This post on tax rates fails to mention the threat of international terrorism, are you soft on terrorism? Can you prove — exhaustively, according to standards set by me — that you’re not soft on terrorism?”
    2) Lemony Snicketism. (see this post:
    3) A refusal to accept that questions may be answered in detail elsewhere and the notion that being referred to an earlier post or series of posts is somehow an evasion of the question at hand rather than, you know, how the Web works.

  • Alan S

    Slacktivist, this was a GREAT post. Brad can try to blow it away, but it won’t work. The whole point of the post, as I see it, is that the TRUTH MATTERS. But, of course the post-modern conservative media thinks that truth is “socially contructed” or in other words THRUTH IS WHAT YOU MAKE UP AND GET ON THE AIR.
    We are living in a post-modern world, but it ain’t a Left-handed world, but a Right-handed world.

  • drieux just drieux

    let’s see if type pad is ok now
    anger is not an agenda
    for dearest brad

  • Howard

    Boy, I read this post differently from anyone else. I assumed it was one of Fred’s theological posts, and the book in question was the Book. Which, come to think of it, wouldn’t be a bad post, but apparently not the one Fred wrote.
    More confirmation (on several levels) of my basic contention that learning how to read is a life-long process.

  • mark

    right handed looking from the left
    left handed looking from the right.
    some things are a matter of perspective

  • none

    Hey Fred,
    Just some observations as I sit back and watch how these last few days have transpired. Here’s my perspective, I’d be interested in yours.
    First of all, I really do like the writing on this site. It is nothing, if not thought provoking. So, that’s good.
    However, it is also just plan ‘provoking’. Imagine me visiting as an outsider reading the posts under (Fools)Gold. Here are some of the phrases I read before joining the fray and just after…
    ‘festival of foolishness’, ‘relax, like George, live in the present’, ‘And God gave us Dubya’, George W. Bush was a heavy drinker’, ‘probabaly a hit and run troll’, ‘any reasonable person would assume’, ‘Agreed. No Duh’
    Can you imagine where someone reading these words might get the impression that this is sort of a rough and tumble site where a bit of challenge and sarcasm might be tolerated – in fact welcomed?
    Then can you also imagine having a view different than the majority of the ‘posters’? You might think that people of like minds would welcome this newcomer, lure him in and really get after him – see what he’s made of. That’s what I expected.
    Instead the message was clear, we really don’t have time for this. Interestingly, there wasn’t time for the dialogue, but there was time to craft and write an entirely new topic ‘The Stranger’ trying to parody the newcomer’s visit.
    If y’all aren’t interested in trying to welcome others in then 1) why write controversial posts to lure them in? and 2) why have a blog at all – why not just get in a chat room and have at it?
    As I said, I’d be interested in your take. Too bad actually ‘The War on Drug Savings’ is something on which I could bring a perspective quite different than most others who post here. I have worked in the pharmaceutical industry and lived in a country with socialized health care – two views that could add to the dialogue if dialogue were the goal.

  • drieux just drieux

    how exactly are we defining the ‘majority’ opinions?
    As a Republican with a DD214 I am by definition a member of a minority group since so few actually have active duty time in the american armed forces. So if folks, like brad, have a take, why not whip it out? I mean what are “they” going to do? Cut your Hair? Put Your Shiney Hiney on the beach with the Marines?
    Or is that a part of the crisis of faith as well.
    It is all too easy to whine that ‘they’ are picking on one for not being a part of the ‘cool crew’ who have all the latest in hip new what ever.
    Could the real source of “controversial posts” be that for some they are ‘controversial’ while to so many of them they are just another day of watching someone cloes in on a Clue.

  • Fred

    Howard —
    I actually like this reading of the post better than what it was intended for. “We see as through a glass, darkly.”
    Brad —
    Again, dialogue is welcome. I’d be very interested to read your thoughts on prescription drugs — esp. on the question of why it is/isn’t prudent to use one’s bargaining power as a large consumer to negotiate for lower prices.
    Please try, in doing so, not to demand that others first produce on the spot extensive essays explaining their full understanding of capitalism and markets as a precondition to your deigning to consider their opinions.
    On a different note: You’ve got time, energy, passion and a lot you want to say. Have you considered starting a blog?
    (Please don’t take this the wrong way — I’m not saying, “Go away and get your own damn blog.” I hope you’ll stick around here as well, But despite the fact that we apparently disagree more often than not, you seem to have the blogger’s temperament and might make a lively contribution with a site of your own.)

  • none

    To your ‘bargaining power question’: You are correct. If the goal was to get the lowest price for the consumer, then having the government negotiate the contract pharmaceutical companies would be a very good way to achieve that.
    I would argue that securing a low price for consumers should not be the only goal in this negotiation. You also have to take into consideration how to fund the R and D of the drug companies. They need to be able to invest millions to continue to discover, develop and test thousands of new drugs with the hopes that one or two will actually have health benefits and be safe for the market.
    Where does that money come from, if not from the price of the drugs it currently sells before losing their monopoly when their patent expires?
    Seems to me you are asking to trade off low prices for innovative new drugs. I’ll gladly pay a bit more for the drugs if I know I’m funding research for the future.
    As for my own blog – no thanks – I have time to post on occassion but not the time it would take to actually do a decent job of hosting. Maybe something to do in my retirement – if I don’t need to be working at a second job to pay for my drugs.

  • Halle

    Brad, are you saying that the goal of the *government* should be to fund the drug co’s R&D through buying drugs at more expensive prices rather than getting the best deal possible for citizens? Presumably when the govt negotiates w/the drug co’s, they have no ability to force the co’s to sell at a loss, but rather at a cheaper but profitable (albeit less profitable than otherwise) price. Drug co’s agreed to sell at a low price to VT and MI based on volume, yet the federal govt is telling them to stop. Can’t drug co’s figure out their own price points?

  • Victor

    (((Infinite Jest someone tells him.)))

     Fred if “IT” really is infinite, why not take the time to re-read the book again with him and/or her cause wouldn’t that be the Christian thing to do?

    Only asking NOW! :)