A week ago I learned the terrible news that Jake Seliger, who ran the great blog Story’s Story blog, was afflicted with a terrible cancer and probably has weeks to live. Jake has been blogging since 2006 (translation: forever in blogging time), and I’ve been following his blog off and on for at last a decade, probably longer. I’ve emailed him several times and we share several literary obsessions and we’ve traded various book announcements. Jake has written two books, and I’m just getting to reading The Hook, which is an academic novel (a novel that takes place at a university, a subject that Jake found fascinating).
Jake has always been a terrific blogger — and a prolific one too (unlike me). At certain times I used to read his blog every day or so. Then for a while, I stopped using RSS readers and my bookmarks got all disorganized. I totally forgot his blog for up to a year, then suddenly remembered and I was back to following him again (Hey, life is like that sometimes). Even this year, I would forget to check his blog, and then catch up several weeks. I had actually made a mental note to give a longer response to one or two of his posts, but haven’t had time in the past few weeks to do so.
I don’t want to get too philosophical here, but it’s easy to take the status quo for granted. In the past few years, I had two college friends (Jay and Mary) pass away unexpectedly. I wouldn’t call either one close friends (mainly because these two people were very social people with an active circle of friends, and I was an introvert), but I certainly enjoyed their company, and for a time at college we hung around one another every day. We were in the same circle of friends, so we had a lot of common experiences. I could have spend a dandy weekend with either of them, and we could have had great fun. And I sure felt devastated when they were gone.
Jake is in his late 30s. He got his master’s and Phd in English fairly quickly and then turned away from academia (presumably because of the lack of job opportunities). But he did a lot of grant writing and even started a business doing that for the last decade. I don’t know how much he enjoyed it, but it’s the sort of niche that people with literature backgrounds fall into, particularly because they can do it so well.
I don’t really know Jake because I never met him, but I definitely know his blog and his writing style. This page (a work in progress) is going to contain some of the more interesting blogposts from Jake’s two blogs. For now, I just want to provide a series of annotated links (but I won’t be quoting). Maybe I’ll comment on them or respond to individual pieces in a later post.
About his Illness
- How do we evaluate our lives, at the end? What counts, what matters? “One estimate finds that about 117 billion anatomically modern humans have ever been born; I don’t know how accurate the “117 billion” number really is, but it seems reasonable enough, and about 8 billion people live now; in other words, around 7% of the humans who have ever lived are living now. I’ve had the privilege to be one.” (RJN: This beautiful farewell essay is designed to say all the important things. It’s really hard to follow that. Let’s see if Jake has the mental space left to post anything more after that).
- I am dying of squamous cell carcinoma and the treatments that might save me just out reach. Besides breaking the bad news, this post argues for the “right to try” unproven forms of treatment.
- What it’s like to be married to a dying man by his wife Bess Stillman M.D. A really profound reflection on the inevitability of loss and coping with it. Bess’s medical background ensures that Jake is now receiving the best care available. Bess is quite an accomplished storyteller herself; Her piece How to Say It (Youtube) is about how doctors are trained to talk about death around their patients. (also reproduced in Moth Presents: Occasional Magic which I bought a few years ago). Her Oath story starts with “I was 28 years old the first time I killed a man” (which tells about another the pressure of dealing with patients in crisis).
- How Universities Work, or What I wish I’d Known Freshman Year: A Guide to American University Life for the Uninitiated (2010). Probably obvious to college graduates, this brilliant guide explains a lot of basic things about how colleges work and how to use it fully. (Bonus: Loved the reference to my former prof John Barth). “The biggest difference between a university and a high school is that universities are designed to create new knowledge, while high schools are designed to disseminate existing knowledge. That means universities give you far greater autonomy and in turn expect far more from you in terms of intellectual curiosity, personal interest, and maturity.”
- How to get coaching, mentoring and attention. This is a great thought piece about why professors ignore certain kinds of students and how to focus on doing stuff rather than simply gaining some academic reward.
Authors and Stuff
I’ll be adding to this over time.
- Apparently Jake interviewed several notable authors including TC Boyle (Part 1 and Part 2); Brady Udall: The Lonely Polygamist. And Part II; Tucker Max: Assholes Finish First; Lev Grossman: The Magicians, Part I. And Part II. Amusingly, here’s his piece about why he doesn’t do more author interviews.
- Jake’s own fiction reminded me of Tom Perrotta. Indeed, thinking that Jake might have written about Perrotta before, I see that he actually talked to him once! Here’s his thoughts on Anita Shreve’s Testimony and Tom Perotta’s Election . Election and its recent sequel are masterpieces in story structure, with short chapters that float from character to character.
- A nice review of the BDSM/erotica novel Never the Face by Ariel Sands. “Never the Face suggests that you will never understand without trying it for yourself. If you do try for yourself, you will be indulging a set of possible desires that social life tells you you shouldn’t have, and if you do have them, they should be repressed, and if they can’t be repressed, they at least shouldn’t be spoken, and if they are spoken, they at least shouldn’t be written and distributed, and if you write and distribute them, you at least shouldn’t let others read it. The layers of taboo violation go deep.”
Jake published two novels about smart young adults. After starting The Hook, I’ve been reminded of the sharp satirical style of Tom Perotta — whom apparently Jake has written about and even met!
- The Hook is a nice novel about a young academic. The Hook explores the love life and career of high school English teacher Scott Sole. Told in a series of short chapters which change from character to character — including a girlfriend who was a former student. Scott takes his job very seriously and is passionate about teaching, yet his private life becomes a topic of interest, especially because of his free-spirited ruminations on his blog. Eventually he is vilified after being wrongly accused by a female student. Reminiscent of Tom Perotta’s Election (both in terms of narrative structure and subject matter), this novel is both realistically told and probably an accurate representation of the unrealistic demands made upon teachers. Under this hypercritical (and hypocritical) eye, it’s hard for single adults (and particularly men) to survive. The novel is a scathing indictment of public morality, but also an interesting look at single life from the man’s perspective.
- Asking Anna is “ comedy, in the tradition of Alain de Botton’s On Love and Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, about how the baggage you bring on a trip isn’t just the kind packed in a suitcase.“