David Rakoff, a writer known for his funny, cynical essays and frequent appearances on This American Life, has died at 47. He had been battling a malignant tumor since 2010.
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Rakoff was born in Montreal to Jewish parents who immigrated to Canada from South Africa, according to an essay he wrote for The New York Times Magazine in 1994. He first moved to New York City, the place he would later call "the great love of my life," in 1982 to attend Columbia University. Describing the experience, he wrote, "Like cartoon characters who wander off cliffs but only fall once they realize they have done so, I felt the solid ground disappear from under my feet and my life in New York begin." Upon graduation, he worked briefly in Japan as a translator, but, at 22, he came down with his first bout of cancer—Hodgkins disease. He overcame the illness, which he liked to humorously downplay as "the dilettante cancer."
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Before devoting himself to writing fulltime, Rakoff worked in publishing. At this time, he befriended Ira Glass, then a producer at NPR's Morning Edition. When Glass went on to create This American Life, he invited Rakoff to read his deadpan essays on the show. Along with David Sedaris, Rakoff would help establish the show's distinctive voice. Rakoff also began pursuing a career as a prolific freelance journalist for the publications like New York, The New York Times, and Salon. He wrote three books of essays, Fraud, Don't Get Too Comfortable, and Half Empty, and last year, he was awarded the Thurber Prize for Humor.
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Rakoff appeared on The Daily Show in 2010, shortly after beginning chemotherapy to discuss his final book, Half Empty, which he described as "a defense of pessimism, melancholy, sadness."
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Update: 10:55 a.m. Obituaries are starting to roll in. In his post on The New York Times' Arts Beat blog, Dave Itzkoff notes Rakoff's work in show business: "In addition to his work in the theater and occasional roles on television, Mr. Rakoff appeared in and adapted the screenplay for The New Tenants, a film that won the Academy Award for best live action short in 2010."
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11:25 a.m. Hilton Als, writing for The New Yorker's Page Turner blog, recalls his initial impression of Rakoff, his then-classmate at Columbia:
Back then, I stayed away from David, because of the sadness I saw in his eyes; I didn’t think I could take it ...
Years later, I was re-introduced to David by a colleague at The New Yorker. His eyes were different: the world had taken some note of his gifts, and there was a light behind the sadness.
11:55 a.m. The New York Times obituary is in.
NPR's Linda Holmes writes, "Being funny, unashamedly angry, and deeply human is something a large number of people try and a relatively small number of people do well. One of the people I've always thought did it well was David Rakoff."
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