Writer David Rakoff Dies at 47

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 10 2012 11:28 AM

David Rakoff, 1964 - 2012

David Rakoff in 2010

Larry Busacca/Getty Images

David Rakoff—a writer whose essays combined generosity for other people with deep pessimism about our general lot in a wholly original and very funny way—died last night after a long bout with cancer. He was 47.

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

Rakoff’s humor was dark and honest; in the video below, from 2011, he explains to an interviewer that not only is writing, for him, incredibly hard—it’s not getting any easier. “Writing only ever begins badly,” he says. “And you have to sit and tolerate yourself long enough to grind out a shitty draft.”


Rakoff was one of the earliest and most frequent contributors to This American Life, and his radio essays were notable not only for their elegant sentences and black comedy but for Rakoff’s memorable delivery. Rakoff had experience acting and directing—in 2010, a short film he adapted and appears in, The New Tenants, won an Oscar for best live-action short.

Last year, Rakoff wrote a short essay for The New York Times Magazine that was about the awkward things people say to someone who might be dying. Today, the essay reads like an explanation—a moving, intelligent, and funny explanation—of his own approach to writing. “With so much muddy logic crowding out reason,” he writes, “it’s best when news, good or bad, is delivered quickly and clearly.”

Here’s a paragraph from near the end:

We like to think that the empathy broadcast with the swooping, downward intonation of the “aaawwww” is an evolutionary comfort; something we are programmed to welcome and offer freely ourselves. As a comment on something that has already happened, it probably works. But as an anticipatory tool, it does not soften the blow, indeed it does the opposite. It leaves you exposed, like grabbing onto the trunk of a tree for support in a storm only to find the wood soaked through and punky and coming apart in your hands. The sweetest bedtime-story delivery is no help when the words it delivers are a version of “…and behind this door is a tiger. Brace yourself.”

Rest in peace, Mr. Rakoff. We miss you already.



Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.