Review: Half Empty

I enjoy David Rakoff‘s writing a great deal, and was therefore pretty sure I knew what to expect as I dug into his latest, Half Empty. His usual erudite assessments of somewhat esoteric and interesting topics were there.  The meticulous organization of his thoughts and brilliant execution of his prose were on display.  Each chapter cum essay was deep and interesting, and I was enjoying everything without any large surprises.

I had forgotten that Mr. Rakoff writes books.

Many books that look superficially like Rakoff’s are collections of well executed or well received personal essays.  The chapters in Half Empty can easily masquerade as these kinds of essay, and, indeed many of these chapters have been published elsewhere. But it is a mistake to assume that these particular chapters appear just because it was time to bind a book.

As I was reading I did notice a tone that seemed unusual for the type of book thought I had in my hands.  It was more restrained and thoughtful than some of the other Rakoff I’ve read.  Rakoff is always in the center of the picture in his books, though often in a self-deprecating way.  And he is in the center of these as well, but more in a more subdued way – almost meditatively so.

The subtle shift of tone, as well as some of the continuing threads running through the chapters all crash together in the final chapter, which is surprising without being wholly out of the blue.  Themes and incidents from early chapters suddenly link in unexpected and holistic ways that make the events described in the final chapter vivid beyond even what Rakoff’s considerable craft could do without the groundwork.  To do all this in non-fiction is quite a remarkable feat.

Many people use their personal experience to make a point; Rakoff uses his to make a piece of literature, without fictionalizing it.  It is a powerful piece of writing that is not empty in any way.

Strongly Recommended.

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