I'm a bad person.
27 May 2008
You know how I know that? I'm about to dis a book written by man dying of pancreatic cancer, for the love of God.
Let's get one thing out of the way: The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch, is not a terrible book. It's not the sort of book that's going to make the world dumber, the way books by Thomas Friedman and Jodi Picoult do. But it is emphatically not a book for me.
You've probably seen the story. Randy Pausch, a professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, found out in 2006 that he had pancreatic cancer. In 2007 the prognosis got worse: he had numerous tumors in his liver and the doctors gave him months to live. This provided the impetus to give a "last lecture" to a large audience at Carnegie Mellon, which he also felt could be recorded and written down so his three very young kids had something to remember him by. It's not a bad idea, and the first part of the book (the text of which was taken from the talk) is interesting, about how he achieved most of his childhood dreams, including working as a Disney Imagineer and being Captain Kirk.*
Where it falters slightly is the last half, where Pausch trots out a bunch of "life lessons," most of which are not only not unique in the grand scheme of books and speeches, but which will be published in literally hundreds of different self-help and business self-improvement books this year alone. They include: Dream Big, Earnest is Better than Hip, Don't Complain, just Work Harder, and Look for the Best in Everybody. There's also a lot of chat about being a positive person, and never giving up when you hit "brick walls."
Well, okay. But you know what? Not everyone is a positive person. I don't think everyone should have to be, which is why I find these types of books so obnoxious. Frankly, I think the crap suggestion to "don't complain, just work harder" is directly attributable to that positive outlook. Just once I'd like to read a book that says, "You know what? If you have a legitimate complaint, complain. Don't stop complaining until the dicks causing your problems address your issue and maybe improve things for the next poor schlubs." Maybe we should all start complaining a little more, with reason, including Pausch: maybe if the pharmaceutical companies were spending a little less money on creating diseases and demands for drugs they have, and a little more money on researching pancreatic cancer, they'd get somewhere faster.
The bottom line is, of course, live and let live. Pausch has a right to write whatever kind of near-death book he wants. But am I the only one who finds it ironic that a man advocating finding a way through brick walls has hit one he clearly won't be able to overcome? I want to read the book that says, "Oh, shit, you know, some walls you just can't break down" and then see what the author does from there.**
I don't think anyone's going to publish that book. But then, I'm not a positive person.***
*The Captain Kirk story was my favorite one in the whole book. Pausch didn't become Captain Kirk, but he met William Shatner, which is even better, in my opinion.
**Actually, I've read that book, and it was AWESOME. It was Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It, one of the most negative and inspiring books ever.
***Please note the important distinction that this doesn't necessarily mean I'm an unhappy person.