Because he wasn’t just intelligent: he was willing to put his intelligence explicitly to use, in a time when it has seemed like every public voice is constantly telling us that applying reason to any purpose (apart from earning money) is either futile or positively harmful. You all know how it goes: follow the wisdom of crowds, blink!, trust your feelings, be fast, cheap and out of control, don’t overanalyse, and above all, don’t be clever, or, worse still, “clever-clever”. He often had a comic escape hatch close at hand, which could make him seem like the smart kid who’s ready to turn it all into a joke when his audience starts to get impatient with his intellectual flights. But in his best work, the self-mockery is more than just a self-conscious defensive reaction: it’s the playfulness of a very high-calibre mind enjoying itself.
Because even though Infinite Jest is a flawed novel, it’s flawed in the sense that Finnegans Wake or V. are flawed, flawed in a way that might still be haunting you ten years after you’ve read it.
Because Everything and More: a Compact History of ∞ is the only popular mathematics book published in my lifetime that is worth a damn.
Because “A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again” and “Getting away from already being pretty much away from it all” are two of the funniest pieces of journalism I’ve read.
Because thinking about his work has reinforced my belief that people who criticise writers for showing off their own cleverness are, well, either not smart enough to understand said writers, or, if they are smart enough, then they’re condemning virtuosity qua virtuosity, as opposed to the ends to which the virtuosity has been applied. And that’s a lot worse than just being dumb.
Because he wrote the following (in an article which did something I would have thought was impossible: made me both fascinated and moved by professional tennis):
You are invited to try to imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. At anything. I have tried to imagine; it’s hard.
In my opinion, he didn’t need to imagine it.