REVIEW: This is Water by David Foster Wallace

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Published by: Little, Brown and Company

Release Date:April 14, 2009
Genres: Philosophy; Consciousness & Thought; Ethics & Morality
Pages: 137
Format: Print
Rating: five-stars

Description (Amazon): Only once did David Foster Wallace give a public talk on his views on life, during a commencement address given in 2005 at Kenyon College. The speech is reprinted for the first time in book form in THIS IS WATER. How does one keep from going through their comfortable, prosperous adult life unconsciously? How do we get ourselves out of the foreground of our thoughts and achieve compassion? The speech captures Wallace’s electric intellect as well as his grace in attention to others. After his death, it became a treasured piece of writing reprinted in The Wall Street Journal and the London Times, commented on endlessly in blogs, and emailed from friend to friend. Writing with his one-of-a-kind blend of causal humor, exacting intellect, and practical philosophy, David Foster Wallace probes the challenges of daily living and offers advice that renews us with every reading.

I first came across “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace three years ago, when I was just about to graduate from high school and was reading commencement speeches late at night. I was feeling the same tinge of sadness and nostalgia that I am feeling now.

It is finals week, meaning that one week later, I will pack my bags and go home. My friends and I will be at different states or even countries. Some I will see at the end of August, when I come back on campus. Some I will have to wait much longer to see again. In the recent weeks, I have become more conscious of the fact that I will only have one more year of college left. And this quote has been on my mind:

The capital-T Truth is about life before death…It is about the real value of a real education, which has nothing to do with grades or degrees and everything to do with simple awareness–awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water.” “This is water.”

You may be asking: What exactly is “water”? The cheeky answer would be, “Read the book and you will find out.” (Oh and by the way, you can listen to the entire recording and read the entire transcript of the entire speech free of charge here, but I highly recommend you to get the book to maximize your reading experience. Some kind person on the Internet made this video for “This is Water”, it’s honestly my favorite video on Youtube).

Wallace begins with this parable:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

If at this moment you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude-but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance.

However, simply being aware is not enough. Wallace reminds us that we need to conscious fight against “default settings”, which are our assumptions about others and our basic self-centeredness. To consciously choose to ignore these impulses is extremely difficult since “there is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of”.

Wallace argues that the purpose of a college education is not to “learn how to think” but to “exercise some control over how and what you think”.

It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.

Wallace expounds on the all too familiar annoyance of being stuck in a traffic jam after a tiring day of work. He makes audiences viscerally feel the “boredom, routine, and petty frustration” and explains how consciously choosing to view others with more empathy changes how you view the unpleasant situation.

Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to foodshop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way?…In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: It’s not impossible that some of these people in SUVs have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to rush to the hospital, and he’s in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am-it is actually I who am in his way. And so on.

What does this have to do with my life as a college student?

For the past three years in college, I haven’t been reminding myself that “This is water”, meaning that I lived “day in, day out,” trying to make it to the next exam, meeting, or interview. I realize now that I have been treating college as a stepping stone instead of an experience. The daily “boredom, routine, and petty frustration” of waiting in lines, running errands, etc. compounds because I always worry about meeting another deadline. Consequently, days, weeks, and months past like a blur.

Of course, I still have great memories spent with close friends: late night conversations or runs to Cosmic’s or birthday celebrations or LDOC festivities or splurging (foodpoints) at WaDuke. But I now think back to all of the anxiety that I could have avoided and all of the moments where I could have practiced more empathy. I want to live with more conscious awareness & compassion and have more meaningful daily interactions. I want to make my mark on my college and the surrounding community before I leave.

This will be my goal for this summer and onwards.

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