Born in Montreal, Rakoff began working in the New York publishing world in the early 1990s and became a contributor to This American Life at the encouragement of David Sedaris, who shared his penchant for piercing personal anecdotes and withering wit.
In 2001, Rakoff published his first collection of essays, Fraud, which catapulted him to national attention. It was followed in 2005 by Don’t Get Too Comfortable and in 2010 by Half Empty, which won the Thurber Prize for American Humor.
It was while he was writing Empty that Rakoff was diagnosed with cancer. In a piece for The New York Times Magazine he discussed being treated for “a rather tenacious sarcoma”:
I am nothing if not compliant. I held still as I was shuttled back and forth through the wondrous high-tech doughnut, inhaling and holding my breath when instructed. Less than three minutes later, I hopped off the narrow table and put my sweater back on.
“Have a fantastic day,” the technician said as I left.
“Fantastic”? Fantastic days are what you wish upon those who have so few sunrises left, those whose lungs are so lesion-spangled with new cancer that they should be embracing as much life as they can. Time’s a-wasting, go out and have yourself a fantastic day!
Fantastic days are for goners. Was I fated to take some final vacation to see Venice for the first and last time? Or should I corral some long-cherished idol (I’m talkin’ to you, Meryl Streep) into posing for a photograph with me, both of us giving a thumbs up to the camera before she beats a hasty retreat back to the Land of the Living? That kind of fantastic day?
Rest in peace, David.