Each of the essays spends some time justifying itself, and like I said, he earns his opinion through hard work. If covering a Dostoyevsky biography causes him to reread all of Dostoyevsky and a few of the other biographies, then it seems reasonable for him to render an opinion. What strikes me most here is that he positions himself to be a latter day Orwell in some ways, and fair enough for good and bad, and like Orwell, he’s deeply suspect of language designed to serve purposes other than meaning. Both his usage guide reviews and discussions of conservative talk radio (as well as big sections of the John McCain writing) are all about how language is used, what purposes are being served by this language, and which of those purposes are stated, and which are not. It’s another version of his understanding of humor, where exformation more than information creates meaning and understanding.
This is a reread from years ago when this book first came out, and I think for the most part Wallace’s nonfiction is going to stick around in our consciousness longer than his fiction. For one, it’s definitely more accessible, but mainly it’s that desire he seems to have to be right on a given topic, but to earn that rightness through clear and sober investigation. This collection is anchored of course by the title essay, and it’s the more famous of the collection because of the minor scandal it caused in the hearts of Gourmet magazine readers. The longer essays in this collection include his entire (uncut) reportage of the John McCain 2000 presidential campaign, his coverage of the Adult Video awards, his review of recent books about usage and language (dictionaries, more or less), and his coverage of the fourth of five biographies of Dostoyevsky. He also covers an emerging voice in conservative talk radio, humor in Kafka (yeah, that one is in here), an insultingly bland sports memoir, finding a flag after 9/11, and other topics.