This is Water by David Foster Wallace

this is waterLike Anna Quindlen’s book Being Perfect, This is Water is a book I grabbed during a break and finished about 10 minutes later, much better off for having read it.

It is the text of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech, delivered to graduates of Kenyon college in 2005. It is, as far as I can find, his only public lecture.

Most of the negative reviews out there focus on the presentation of the book. I’ve yet to hear anyone say a negative word about the content.

But about the book itself. It’s roughly 120 pages, but each page might have between four and 50 words on it. So most of the howling I’m reading comes from the price of the book.

Being a dunce, I would happily pay three times as much for a quarter of the word count, but that’s neither here nor there.

Here’s what is here and yes, there.

This is Water summary

Essentially DFW tells the graduates that by definition of having been in school, they no longer have an accurate picture of what “day to day” adult life looks like. here and there, perhaps, but not days and weeks and years and then decades of sameness.

Most fascinating for me was hearing someone as brilliant as Wallace say that the intellectualism of the Liberal Arts environment both helped and hurt him. Helped in that it encourages study, research, curiosity, etc.

However, he also warns against the worship of the intellect. The person who worships their intellect above all else will always feel stupid and “on the verge of being found out.”

he also describes an intellectual environment as a prison so impenetrable that the prisoners have no idea they are locked up. They lose the ability to choose because they lose the ability to see through lenses other than those at the center of their worship.

Choice is at the core of the speech. During the monotony of the day to day adult world, the free person chooses to think about things and in ways that make him or her better. The person in the prison has fewer ways of seeing and can only experience the negative aspects of the grind.

It is a book about how we can each decide what freedom means, and how to have as much of that freedom as possible, as frequently as possible.

I haven’t done the book justice, but I hope I’ve given enough of a glimpse of it to help you decide whether you should read it or not.


One thought on “This is Water by David Foster Wallace

  1. As I rapidly approach the culmination of my first decade of day-to-day adult sameness, the veracity of Wallace’s statement rings frightfully true. The college experience has done, to me, permanent and irreparable damage. I, too, was in the liberal arts, and nothing I have done since has inspired me with the same sense of purpose, drive, or inspiration. Even at the time, I think I realized that it couldn’t go on forever, that there is something utterly un- “real” and finite about that period of your life. You can’t just sit around reading great literature and philosophy and discussing it at length with other bright, young, like-minded individuals forever. Unfortunately. And while I “know” this, and understand why it must be, I think there is a good chance that I may never recover.

    Sure, I could have continued down the academic route, and maybe should have. But I think I feared, and probably rightfully so, that it wouldn’t be the same. That it would be disappointing, somehow, and thus less painful to just do something else entirely.

    I also feared the highly focused, politicized academic environment, having glimpsed just a fraction of the “intellectual prison” he discusses. I think it’s true; if you make academia and intellectualism your “God,” you will always feel like an idiot, on the verge of being discovered a fraud. I love art and literature and philosophy, and my love is serious, but I love it lightly. Playfully. Childishly. Deeply, yes, but I always wanted to maintain the passion that I feel can only come from youthful (or youth-like) detachment. You can hate anything when it goes from being a passion to a chore, a hobby to a job. I was afraid to lose my love.

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