Tuesday, May 25, 2010

This is Water, by David Foster Wallace

In a nod to graduation season I just read David Foster Wallace's "This is Water," the commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College in 2005. I am a huge DFW fan, although because I haven't read his best known book, "Infinite Jest," I'm sure I don't qualify as an official DFW groupie.

If you know me just a little bit, you'll know that, even with my giant-sized will and slightly obsessive nature, there is absolutely no way -- and I mean NO WAY -- I would ever be able to make it through "Infinite Jest," a novel that tops 1,000 pages. Remember me, the super slow reader? Here's what I do when I spot an interesting title: I note the author; I note the subject matter; I check the page count. The thought of tackling any book that clocks in at over 250 pages makes my stomach lurch.

My first encounter with DFW was last year, when I happened upon his book of essays, "Consider the Lobster." I got it: the crystal clear thinking, the fine analysis, the exposing of the "naked emperors" that have been around so long, that we are so accustomed to, that we never notice their presence. Still, even this collection of essays was hefty, so despite the sparkling prose, true to form, I cherry-picked which essays I read. G-d, I wish I could read faster.

So when I saw "This is Water," a DFW book consisting of a single essay, printed up in 137 half-size pages, some with only a single sentence, I was excited. I knew even I could handle this. Even a super slow reader like me could whip right through it, but you won't want to. While speaking to the adage that a liberal arts education "teaches you how to think," DFW whittles down this notion to its elemental truth: Our experience of the world is determined by how we choose to think about what happens to us. DFW talks about the big problem we all have, one I wrestle with on a daily basis, of paying attention to the incessant chatter in our brains -- those default setting voices that support our belief that we are each the center of the universe. In this profound essay, DFW explains that the value behind a liberal arts degree lies not in that it teaches you how to think, but that it teaches you how to exercise control over how and what to think.

Tragically, Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008. In fact, in this essay, as he speaks to the destructive ways our minds can work, he mentions suicide, but this in no way diminishes the deep and essential truth of his words.

"This is Water" is a precious gem. I'm going to search amazon and see if I can purchase a stack of them to hand out to....everyone!

Recently David Lipsky came out with a book, "Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself," detailing five days he spent in 1996 interviewing DFW for Rolling Stone Magazine. Check out the article by Laura Miller about this new DFW related book in the link below...

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