Sundays In: Half Empty

Silly, really, is how it feels. Ridiculous, even, the way I get so caught up in the lives of a fair few authors with whom I forget I am not personally acquainted. It’s a strange, one-way street of revelation, isn’t it, reading? While the question is one for the ages, and one perfect to begin a new column, there is something hollow about beginning with death.

When I woke to the news of David Rakoff’s passing, I could not identify the cold grip on my ribs, like my gut was devouring itself. There on the screen before me, the world-weary smile frozen to the face of a brilliant essayist, critic, actor, and reader. His face wouldn’t change in my mind from that moment, but his voice lives on, a clever rasp of self-effacing wisdom. A colleague and dear friend of Rakoff’s, David Sedaris, once wrote that the voice of Reason sounds in his mind like the voice of Bea Arthur; I must say Reason more closely resembles Rakoff to me.

First reading Half Empty, I discovered Rakoff late, in the summer of 2010. Over coffee and pastries on the patio of Madison Park bakery looking out toward Lake Washington, I recall learning the hysterical importance of strength in the face of adversity as Rakoff eviscerated Jonathan Larson’s seminal musical Rent. It was the beginning of arguably the strangest year of my life to date, one in which I would acknowledge myself for the first time as a whole person. But that would come much later, and it was as I read Half Empty that I first remember the inkling, the glittery suggestion of a future in which I might be a writer half as fearless and gay as him.

That fall, University Bookstore brought Rakoff to Town Hall, and my friends recognized him only after he opened his mouth. They were all This American Life this, and “testosterone episode” that. It was there that the full scope of his illness impressed upon me, what I had egregiously overlooked in his essays. And when my boyfriend and I watched TAL live in a movieplex this spring, and saw Rakoff stop reading an essay abruptly to dance, one arm heavy and tucked cumbersomely into the front pocket of his jeans—I was again reminded.

Tenacity is a writer who composes as events transpire. Compassion is one who leavens them with humor.

I think all we ever knew of David Rakoff’s illness is what he chose to reveal in his essays, yet in the auditorium at Town Hall many asked about the Hodgkin’s, the remission, the treatments. For many of us cancer is a lingua franca, a language that breeds empathy and knowing because it is so rampant, but Rakoff never relied on it to connect with any of us. Instead he wrote with humor, often dark and sharp, but a humor nonetheless that reminds me at least that familiarity is not bred exclusively by loss or hardship, but by bravery and generosity.

Though it seems a cruel irony that I will be seeing Rent at the 5th Avenue this week, when I look back at these brief two years I’ve known Rakoff’s work, it feels a little less silly to tear up every time I see another magazine or blog or tweet paying respects. No, it feels more like saying thank you.

“Sundays In” is a new bi-weekly column written as the experiences of one reader to another. While much of the week might be filled with work and errands, there might just be one afternoon to enjoy the pleasure of reading. For this bookseller, “Sunday” is Thursday.

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