The Last Lecture On A Tuesday With Morrie

I Recently finished the second of two books with similar themes; death vs. quality of life.  Tough topics to write about.  The Last Lecture is a 2008 book by Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg.  It describes, not so much his struggle with pancreatic cancer, but rather his obstinate refusal to let the fatal diagnosis squelch his joy of living.  The book came out of an actual lecture at Carnegie Mellon titled “Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”.  That concept, achievement, is really the theme and  beating heart of the book, and not the sadness and defeat of a terminal diagnosis.

The second book is older, but perhaps better known.  Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom is about a teacher who contracts Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but still has more life lessons to impart to a jaded, world-weary former student.  It, Tuesdays, is a good deal more graphic about the ravages and insults foisted upon the human body by fatal disease.  Some of the descriptions are cringe-worthy.  I had read Tuesdays with Morrie years ago, when it first came out, and may have an additional level of understanding, even compassion, by virtue of having worked with ALS patients for years.  None of that reduces the cringe factor.

It is impossible for anyone with a limbic system to not sympathize with these men.  Tears, empathy, compassion, and a brief but total illumination of the human condition saturate both narratives.  Both are difficult books to get through.  Each requires periodic deep breaths and extended episodes of staring into empty space.

But, I want to do a literary U-turn here and talk about quality of the writing of the books itself, and not the themes or dispiriting details.  The styles are a study in contrast.  The older one, Tuesdays, is a conventional book, written by a professional writer.  It uses literary techniques developed to keep the reader interested in the story.  It actually weaves two narratives; that of the teacher with ALS, and that of his student.  The tale is not presented in a straight sequence, but bounces around from their college courses together through a long hiatus in their relationship to a chance meeting to the final months of “Tuesdays with Morrie”.  It is skillfully done and delivers three-dimensional main characters, and a couple of interesting support players as well.  Not surprisingly, it was made into a movie.

Lecture, by comparison, was not conceived as a book, but as, well, a lecture.  It was first presented  on a stage, with all the multimedia tools then available; A computer presentation with pictures, sound, video clips,  and the whole lecture videotaped for consumption by us, the eager acolytes of the information generation.  It was a very effective  presentation and delivered a comprehensive view of the author’s life, and a penetrating illustration of optimism and joie de vivre.

I, with my bias toward the written word, chose to read the book version, which is an autobiography  written by an engineer.  As such, it is a compilation of facts and anecdotes laid out in a clear sequence.  It is the biographical equivalent of the Ikea instructions to assemble a chair.  These are the tool you need, this is what you do first, and then what you do second and third. Be sure to use the right screws, and make sure that you don’t have any of the verticals confused with the horizontals.  It gets the job done, and I think that is the highest praise I can give to Ikea instructions.  There is, of course, an overlay of emotion and pathos in Mr. Pausch’s book, he isn’t building a chair, but his step-by- step approach leaves much of his story dry and, um, wooden.

I have since watched the video of the lecture (easily available on YouTube) and come away with a much different conception of Mr. Pausch and what he accomplished in Lecture.  The lecture itself, and the video are is much more coherent and effective than the book version.  It is multidimensional, and perhaps that is what multimedia brings to any project.

Which, I suppose, demands a comparison between the old and the new.  The traditional and the modern.  The ho-hum and the ‘ooh, shiny’.   The Powerpoint presentation or words on a page.  But there isn’t, really, much room for  a comparison.  To me, they just serve different purposes.  

Would you rather travel in a Boeing 737 or just walk?  It depends on where you’re going; to the grocery store for milk and bread, or to Brazil for the Olympics.

Would you rather wear a ten-dollar watch purchased from Ted’s Close Enough TimePieces or strap on a three-pound beauty that is waterproof to a thousand fathoms, accurate to 1/10,000 of a second, and automatically synced to the atomic clock at Greenwich England?  It depends on whether you just want to know when to go to lunch, or if you are the official timekeeper of the International Submarine Race Watching Regatta.

Do you prefer coffee, or an iced coconut half caf mocha macchiato with steamed milk and a peppermint stick?  Well, that depends on…. Actually this one doesn’t depend on anything.  I’ll just take a coffee, please.  Light, no sugar.

Reading for me is a quiet, uncomplicated, undemanding form of recreation.  Like an old friend, it is not a relationship that I have to work at.  No quiz at the end, no time limits, easy to stop in the middle, if my attention wanders, I can always go back.  

If I want to focus, concentrate, be inspired and educated, the new technology is the way to go.  If I want to take the time to integrate information, and enjoy the slow trickle as  it meanders into my brain pan, a book words every time.