Book Review - 'Last Lecture's' message survives at MJCCA Book Fest

Marcus Jewish Community Center Book Festival

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Photo credit: Hyperion Press
MEMORY KEEPERS: Randy Pausch (left) and Jeffrey Zaslow

When did reminders of mortality become so trendy? Far from being a downer, the concept of memento mori seems to be a popular marketing tool. The movie The Bucket List helped popularize the notion of fulfilling your lifelong wishes with the time you have left. Whole lines of books have names like The 1001 Movies/Paintings/Natural Wonders You Must See Before You Die. It's partly a simple way to lend urgency to a title, like the "for Dummies" series.

"The Last Lecture's" popularity might be part of this morbid cultural obsession, but one that genuinely inspires self-awareness and joie de vivre in its audience. On Sept. 18, 2007, Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Randy Pausch gave a talk called "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams." It was part of the university's "Last Lecture" tradition, in which professors give valedictory talks to their students as if it were their last chance before dying. Brimming with boyish energy, Pausch intended the Sept. 18 talk to literally be his final lecture: His doctors had recently informed him that he had terminal pancreatic cancer and only a few months left.

Wall Street Journal reporter Jeffrey Zaslow, a Carnegie Mellon graduate, was present for Pausch's funny anecdotes, reminiscences, simple advice and heartfelt tributes to his colleagues. Zaslow reported on the lecture for the Wall Street Journal and posted a four-and-a-half minute video clip. The online clip gradually turned Pausch's talk into a viral phenomenon and a mass-media sensation viewed by worldwide audiences an estimated 10 million times. It turned the virtual reality expert into an unexpected celebrity even as his health declined, until his death July 25, 2008. Zaslow co-authored the best-selling hardback version of Pausch's life and ideas, and speaks about The Last Lecture on the final night of the 17th annual Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta Book Festival.

In addition to such celebrity authors as movie star Tony Curtis, the festival puts the spotlight on religious-themed books, including God in the Wilderness: Rediscovering the Spirituality of the Great Outdoors with the Adventure Rabbi by Rabbi Jamie Korngold; How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now by James L. Kugel; and My Jesus Year: A Rabbi's Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith by Atlanta's Benyamin Cohen. The Last Lecture, however, may encourage readers to evaluate their lives in the most practical terms.

"Randy was a scientist, a realist and an optimist," says Zaslow, who adds that he was a Unitarian, although Pausch didn't mention his faith specifically in either the lecture or his book. Early in the lecture, Pausch said, "We're not going to talk about spirituality and religion, although I will tell you I have achieved a deathbed conversion: I bought a MacIntosh."

"Some people watching it online have made comments like, 'If you're going to have a deathbed conversion, you should find Jesus,'" says Zaslow. "But he put that in as a laugh line. He thought he was talking to his students. He didn't know people would be watching it in Fiji, in Italy."

Zaslow believes that the unguarded, heartfelt quality of Pausch's talk made "The Last Lecture" strike a chord with so many people. "It was authentic. People felt like they were eavesdropping on a man saying goodbye to his work family. They would find it in their inboxes and send it to others. If ABC, CNN and all the rest had been there with camera crews, it wouldn't have been the same. Randy went on Oprah, and once you've gone on Oprah and given a talk, that's less authentic, but people were moved by that, too."

Pausch's unsought fame inevitably led to a book about ideas and what Zaslow calls "the backstory of his marriage, career and the stuff he didn't talk about in his lecture." For 53 days between November 2007 and January 2008, Zaslow talked with Pausch for an hour at a time while the professor rode his stationary bicycle. "It was great, but it was hard, because we both knew what we were doing, and knew where it was heading. I felt like I got these 53 extra lectures that others didn't get. He only choked up at the end, when we were talking about his kids. I got choked up, too."

Pausch's lecture includes PowerPoint descriptions of "Lessons Learned" along the lines of "Show gratitude," "Don't bail," "Get a feedback loop and listen to it," and "Never lose the childlike wonder." Zaslow says that working with Pausch changed his own perspective on his life and family. "I'm addicted to Googling his name, and I would send him links to stories about him. Finally he told me, 'Stop Googling my name, and go and hug your kids instead.'" He thought he'd be a good parent of teenagers, especially since he'd been teaching young people for years, and he regretted that he wasn't going to be able to raise his kids as teens. I have teens, so I'm aware that it's a gift."

While working on the book, Pausch told Zaslow about a visit to the grocery store. "He had a problem in the self-scan aisle, and when he got two receipts, he realized that he'd been charged twice. He knew that he could get it worked out in about 15 minutes if he found a manager at the store. Instead, he left, and later told me, 'I'd rather have 15 minutes than $16 dollars.'"

I asked Zaslow if he felt like an understudy going on in Pausch's place when he delivers speeches at venues like the MJCCA Book Festival. "It's an honor to share the story. It was emotional when I started it. I spoke in the same lecture hall at Carnegie Mellon that Randy did, and pointed out the places where he did his pushups, and gave away his stuffed animals. I'm less emotional now because it's more like I'm reporting it as a journalist, but it's still powerful and bittersweet. I've got a feeling that I'll never cover a story like this again."

Perhaps Pausch's example has taught Zaslow to appreciate it while it lasts. In one of Pausch's most memorable original remarks from "The Last Lecture," he commented on the importance of having a good time. "I don't know how not to have fun. I'm dying, and I'm having fun." In a way, dying has never seemed less frightening.