Recommended Reading: The Last Lecture

You’ll notice that this post is being filed under “living well,” rather than “language and literature” or “arts.”  Don’t let that fool you into thinking that I recommend this book merely as inspirational fluff–despite the gushing tributes this book has received since Professor Randy Pausch’s untimely death two weeks ago, The Last Lectureis not primarily designed to choke you up and give you a warm fuzzy feeling, nor is it a pity party for Dr. Pausch. 

In fact, even though it’s far closer to the truth, I think we’d be wrong to characterize it as a “seize the day” manifesto for making the most of our lives.  Certainly most people will look at it that way, and they’re not entirely wrong to do so, but The Last Lecture has much more in common with Life’s Little Instruction Book or even The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People than it does with, say, Chicken Soup for the Soul or I’m OK, You’re OK.  It’s not inspirational–it’s didactic.

Pausch is a teacher, and throughout the book he explicitly tells us that he is using this opportunity to teach; he’s teaching his children how to live well and, through that project, us as well.  I picked up The Last Lecture wondering if it would have been such a big deal had not the author been dying; as I read it, I realized that it probably wouldn’tbe such a big deal if the author weren’t dying, but not for the reason I’d feared.  This book is absolutely not a sensationalist exploitation of a man’s own death; if not for Pausch’s cancer, I wonder if most readers would have been bored. 

Dr. Randy Pausch, 1960-2008 <i>Ave Ate Vale</i>
Dr. Randy Pausch, 1960-2008 Ave Atqe Vale

Pausch only mentions his disease relatively rarely, and only then to help illustrate a point about something else he’s already telling us.  In fact, the book would work just as well if he never mentioned it at all.  The Last Lecture is a practical, sober, down to earth manual of ideas not for feeling good so much as for being productive.  Granted, that productivity is meant in terms of relationships as well as career goals and general self-improvement, but we sell this wonderful little book short if we only view it as a sappy ode to “living in the moment.”

For example, there’s a chapter about Alice, a free online download that Pausch helped develop that teaches people how to program animation.  Being fairly computer illiterate myself, I was happy to learn about this and have already set it up on my own hard drive.  He also has some good advice about using Girl Scout thin mint cookies to help people be productive with you, and to build relationships by expressing gratitude.  It’s a great idea, and next year I’ll stock up on those cookies. 

There’s even a chapter on time management (see, I told you it was like The Seven Habits). 

But if it’s not a syrupy Hallmark card, neither is it a cold-blooded textbook.  Pausch has an engaging, accessible style that lends itself well to this kind of counsel; at one point he writes, “this is just the stuff that worked for me.”  No heavy-handed pontificating here.  His many anecdotes are clever and his constant self-deprecating humor is often laugh-out-loud funny. 

So when you read The Last Lecture, you might need a box of tissues, but I sure didn’t.  What I did need was some paper for taking notes on Pausch’s many great ideas for working hard and enjoying it, and an eraser to get rid of the scribbles I made while laughing at his story of painting his childhood bedroom…very poorly.

This book is a testament to how much Pausch achieved in life, and how he did it.  The book itself is a worthy accomplishment, one whose lessons are worth imitating, and a monument to a life well lived.


2 comments on “Recommended Reading: The Last Lecture

  1. Yeah, I didn’t need a box of tissues either, UNTIL the last couple of chapters. I still don’t believe that it was what was explicitly written (although one would have to be made of much sterner stuff than I to not have their heart break when he writes about his wife’s embrace after his lecture) so much as it was me interposing my own life, and imagining my own children growing up without me during those final pages.

    This is an excellent read, and I will be posting a review of it on my own blog shortly. Thanks for the heads up on this, I would have completely overlooked it had I not read about it here first.

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