At the risk of sounding like a cold-hearted jerk let me preface this by saying how profoundly touched I was when I heard about Randy Pausch's plight. This rating and what I say about his book in no way reflects on the man. No one should ever be dealt the hand that he was. He was in the prime of his life and career when he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer at the age of 46. From that point forward he dedicated what remained of his time to his family and with the task of writing life lessons for his kids, lessons that they could remember him by for the rest of their lives. By all accounts he was a talented and dedicated teacher, a loving husband, and a strong role model for his kids. This is gut-wrenching stuff and it's hard to imagine the kind of power and strength it takes to go forward so firmly and without a trace of self-pity.
The output of Pausch's tragic journey was his now famous Carnegie Mellon lecture (available on YouTube and elsewhere) and this slim volume, published shortly before his untimely death in July 2008. In both the book and the lecture he points out his personal life lessons and explains how he was able to live life to the fullest by following his bliss and ticking items off his Life List (developed in childhood).
Pausch boils the theme down to "what wisdom would you try to impart to the world if you knew it was your last chance?". By the end of the book and lecture, however, I was left wondering who the real day-to-day Randy Pausch was. Far be it for me to doubt someone's sincerity or commitment to family but his testimony of the importance of "home and hearth" in the book seemed somewhat contrary to the reality as he showcases in one comment in the book. People would ask him how he came to be successful -- his answer was to call him at work at 10:00 pm on a Friday night and he'd tell you. Was the knowledge that he had cancer a full angelic transformation for him or did he always live by the values he preaches in the book? Is this book an atonement or a summary of a life well lived?
And what was the reason for its stellar popularity, it's near-constant presence on daytime talk shows, the Internet phenomenon of the lecture? I'm not sure. I personally think that the tragedy of the man's situation and the empathy one cannot help feeling were really what fueled the success. People could see them and think privately, "How awful!" or even more cynically, "I'm glad that's not me!". It is an exercise in Napoleon Hill self-affirmation. To claim that there were any original inspirational insights within its pages I think is a real stretch. The true lesson to derive is not to win the most stuffed animals at the Fair or to travel to space but the one of bravery and strength that Pausch demonstrated the last courageous months of his tragically short life.