Good Reads – Consider the Lobster

David Foster Wallace was one of this century’s most genius and influential writers. His fiction and essays are full of irony,  interesting vocabulary, and countless footnotes to expound upon the insights of his text. Brent and I have always enjoyed reading his essays aloud, laughing at the observations on human nature and reality.

Consider the Lobster is a collection of essays, each one well worth the read. The essay which inspired the name of the book is particularly good. In Consider the Lobster (the essay) Wallace talks about the Maine Lobster Festival in Penobscot Bay, what he calls “the nerve stem of Maine’s lobster industry.” He runs through a bit of history regarding the festival, what kinds of dishes are served, how many people usually participate, and the general atmosphere.

His vivid description of the scene is quite compelling. “There is a constant Disneyland-grade queu, which turns out to be a square quarter mile of awning-shaded cafeteria lines and rows of long institutional tables at which friend and stranger alike sit cheek by jowl, cracking and chewing and dribbling.” In a way that only Wallace can, he begins schooling the reader on the biology of the marine crustacean, the best depth to find the lobster, and why it’s best eaten in the summer.

Then we come to the real talking-point of the essay: lobster are supposed to be alive when you put them in the kettle. The world’s largest lobster cooker, processing over 100 lobster at a time, is a prized feature of the Main Lobster Festival. Wallace spends the rest of the essay addressing, and arguing,  the claim that lobsters don’t feel.  He intelligently presents facts on lobster’s sensory abilities, describes the obviously panicked reaction of any lobster thrown into a boiling pot of water (“The lobster… behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water, with the obvious exception of screaming.”), and ultimately raises questions of morals. He acknowledges the uncomfortable nature of the issue and ends with a series of questions designed to make the reader think. (Not just about lobster, but about our nature as humans to avoid contemplating issues that question our own civility and moral constitution.)

The essay doesn’t hold the tone of a PETA article fighting for animal rights, or that of a gourmet chef expounding on the savors of lobster. However, in a way that is uniquely David Foster Wallace, the essay seems to reach out and enlighten both sides. It is obvious that Wallace finds the whole notion of a festival celebrating the slaughter and consumption of another living thing to be gruesome and barbaric, but his stab at the system is a clever, elevated wit. His writing is genius, humorous, and extremely insightful.

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