A professor with terminal pancreatic cancer writes about what life has taught him
The Last Lecture. By Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow. Hyperion, 224 pp., $21.95, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
For years, Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! has returned to the bestseller lists every June, spurred by its popularity as a graduation gift. As a statement of faith in someone who has just picked up a diploma, its buoyant message is hard to beat: “And will you succeed? / Yes! You will, indeed!”
But many graduates need more guidance than a picture book can offer. And for those who do, Randy Pausch has written what may be the year’s best high school or college graduation gift.
Pausch learned last year that he had terminal pancreatic cancer and, soon afterward, gave a valedictory lecture at Carnegie Mellon University, where he teaches computer science. He called his talk “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” and used it to explain how he had accomplished most of what he set out to do in life. Witty and poignant, the lecture had millions of viewings on YouTube and inspired this collection of brief essays in which Pausch tells what he has learned from life.
For all its popularity, The Last Lecture might give some people pause. It comes from Mitch Albom’s publisher and literary agent and has a format similar to that of Tuesdays With Morrie. And like Albom, Pausch loves clichés or what he calls “old chestnuts.” From The Last Lecture we learn that “Luck is indeed where preparation meets opportunity” and “Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right.” Summing up the theme of his lecture and book, Pausch writes: “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”
But Pausch is much funnier than Albom. At times. The Last Lecture reads at times like a draft of Dave Barry Meets His Maker. Pausch allows that he’s given some good talks as a professor: “But being considered the best speaker in a computer science department is like being known as the tallest of the Seven Dwarfs.”
Pausch also serves up colorful anecdotes about working as an expert on virtual reality projects with Disney Imagineering and other titans. He tells us that reading journal articles can he so tedious that whenever he sent out a paper for review, he’d send a box of Girl Scout Thin Mints to the reviewer. “Thank you for agreeing to do this,” he’d write. “The enclosed Thin Mints are your reward. But no fair eating them until you review the paper.” When he needed to send a follow-up e-mail, he could keep it to one sentence: “Did you eat the Thin Mints yet?” You believe Pausch when he says that he achieved almost all of his childhood dreams that were within his reach and understand why he did.
That’s partly why The Last Lecture is a book for the living, not the dying. Pausch has been lucky to have been able to accomplish much of what he hoped to achieve, and he knows it. Many people aren’t. They die with large unfulfilled dreams that this book could throw into higher relief. So Pausch clearly found the ideal audience for his upbeat message at Carnegie Mellon. Students and other young people may find his book a wellspring of inspiration for the years ahead. Their grandparents may only regret that they don’t have more time to drink from it.
Best line: “Someone asked me what I want on my tombstone. I replied, ‘Randy Pausch: He Lived Thirty Years After a Terminal Diagnosis.’” And Pausch makes this comment about a football coach named Jim Graham: “Coach Graham worked in a no-coddling zone. Self-esteem? He knew there was really only one way to teach kids how to develop it: You give them something they can’t do, they work hard until they find they can do it, and you just keep repeating the process.”
Worst line: Pausch says he loves football clichés and often repeated them to his students: “I liked my students to win one for the Gipper, to go out an execute, to keep the drive alive, to march down the field, to avoid costly turnovers and to win games in the trenches even if they were gonna feel it on Monday.” Pausch is clearly having some fun here, but still: Isn’t it time to punt a few of those away?
Editor: Will Balliett
Published: April 2008
Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Last Lecture was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 30, 2008. If you are reading this post on the home page of the site, scroll up to find the guide. If you are reading this post on the Internet, click on this link www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/30/.
Furthermore: Pausch posts regular updates on his health download.srv.cs.cmu.edu/~pausch/news/index.html. Read an excerpt from his book or watch his lecture at Carnegie Mellon here www.thelastlecture.com.
Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.