LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:
Years ago on a moonlight stroll in Manhattan, David Rakoff saw a massive cathedral, a gorgeous purple sky, and a heap of garbage bags covered with rats. Rakoff is a writer who delights in darkness.
DAVID RAKOFF: I am essentially a happy person...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RAKOFF: ...and a killjoy, and I'm a pill, and I can suck the fun right out of a room. But I'm happy.
WERTHEIMER: David Rakoff is the author of the book "Don't Get Too Comfortable." His latest book, a collection of essays, is called "Half Empty." Like an artist, he sees life's negative spaces.
RAKOFF: I do. I take pleasure in the realism of it, and that makes me feel effective, and sort of like I'm not lying to myself. And I also take pleasure in being able to render it with some kind of accuracy or vividness. But I don't think that there's a great cultural value placed on seeing things as being somewhat more realistic or less pleasant than they actually are.
WERTHEIMER: I'd like to just ask you to concentrate on one essay in the book.
WERTHEIMER: "Shrimp." You say that you were cursed with a very happy childhood.
RAKOFF: I would clarify. I was cursed with a very lovely childhood.
RAKOFF: The happy part, however, you know, if you're into that kind of thing, but you know, I kind of wasn't.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RAKOFF: I wasn't...
WERTHEIMER: Well, let's - could you just read in the middle of Page 30?
RAKOFF: In E.B. White's 1945 classic, "Stuart Little," the protagonist is the second son of Mrs. Frederick C. Little of New York City, a child who was, quote, "not much bigger than a mouse and who also looked very much like a mouse in every way." Stuart Little was articulate beyond his years. Stuart Little had a flare for costume, dressing up in full regalia of vaguely pornographic sailor whites just to visit the boat pond in Central Park.
WERTHEIMER: Stuart Little was only afraid of dogs, whereas I was polymorphously phobic, scared of everything.
WERTHEIMER: So why did being tiny, why was that so important, do you think?
RAKOFF: You mean how does it shape one?
RAKOFF: So there was this disconnect where body and voice seemed that much farther apart. And that can be tremendously influential on the way you socially interact with people. I spent all those years vamping, you know, on the piano before my body showed up.
WERTHEIMER: You have a warning on the cover of your book that says: No inspirational life lessons will be found in these pages.
RAKOFF: That's right.
WERTHEIMER: And the book, of course, is not exactly light. It includes 9/11, AIDS, cancer. What are you aiming for here? Not inspiration, but what?
RAKOFF: Well, I think by saying that there was to no inspiration, I also didn't want it to seem like it was a polemic, or like I was prescribing the way people should feel or the way they should think. I can only say what is true for me. And what is true for me is that a certain kind of clear-eyed examination of the world as it is really is not just healthy but there's a great beauty in it.
WERTHEIMER: You talk about a very difficult and personal subject which is that you have had cancer. You went through the treatment, you got to the end of it and then it came back. You say you're living with baseline uncertainty.
RAKOFF: I'm present in my life in a way that was very - is very comforting to me.
WERTHEIMER: David Rakoff, thank you.
RAKOFF: You know, the pleasure - and it was actual pleasure - was mine. Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: You can read an essay from David Rakoff's "Half Empty" at NPR.org.
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