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David Rakoff's 'Half Empty' Lessons In Misanthropy

Sep 21, 2010 (Morning Edition)

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David Rakoff doesn't often look on the bright side, and in his latest collection of essays, Half Empty, he explains why you shouldn't either.

"I can see a great beauty in acknowledging the fact that the world is dark," Rakoff tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. It's healthy, he insists, to employ "a certain kind of clear-eyed examination of the world as it is."

In Half Empty's essays, Rakoff applies his signature wit to a range of wildly depressing subjects, including Sept. 11, AIDS and cancer.

Overcoming A Happy Childhood

To settle into this grim worldview, Rakoff had to transcend his "indulged, privileged" early years. "I was cursed with a very lovely childhood," he laments.

"I loathed being a child," he writes in his essay "Shrimp." "Childhood was a foreign country to me. Everyone has an internal age ... I always felt that my internal clock was calibrated somewhere between 47 and 53 years old."

It didn't help that he was tiny. "I come from a short family," he writes, "but I was worryingly diminutive, freakishly small."  Unlike other small kids who made up for their size by "being athletic or straight," Rakoff says that he compensated for his small stature with a "constant barrage of sophisticated verbiage."

His "physical train" hadn't yet "come into the station" he explains, but "a certain kind of verbal acuity happened long before my body could catch up." It made for a jarring disconnect between his body and his voice, but he says the strategy helped cultivate his deep love of language.

Now in his 40s, Rakoff is nearing his natural "internal age" — and he's a man of average height. "I still manifest as someone smaller than I am," he says. When he tells people how tall he is, "People are often rather surprised," he says. "They're always like: 'Really? That's funny. I thought you were much smaller.' "

Thriving In 'Baseline Uncertainty'

Rakoff takes pleasure in seeing the world's negative space, and rendering it vividly and accurately — but he doesn't expect everyone to take on his Half Empty worldview. Anyone who picks up his book of essays will see the yellow warning label on the cover: "WARNING: No inspirational life lessons will be found in these pages," it reads.

"I can only speak to myself," Rakoff explains. "I can only say what is true for me."

Today, Rakoff lives day to day with a "baseline uncertainty" — after being treated once already for cancer, the disease has come back, and he is currently undergoing chemotherapy.

"I live with it every day," he says. "I can channel my 12-year-old, teen-girl self — where I would stand in the mirror and cry and cry to certain songs." But Rakoff says he's found that he can also "survive and thrive and have a perfectly full life."

"Would I rather have the kind of certainty that I had in my life three years ago?" he says. "Undoubtedly. ... [But ] I'm present in my life in a way that is very comforting to me."

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Half Empty
By David Rakoff
Hardcover, 240 pages
Doubleday
List Price: $24.95
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