(Yes, Mom, I bought this book even though it has a goldfish on the cover. David Foster Wallace trumps my fear of fish. Also, This is Water is a part of my soul.)
This book, subtitled "Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occassion, about Living a Compassionate Life," was Wallace's 2005 Kenyon College commencement address. I had read it before, but on a beautiful day on Vassar College's campus, I had an hour to kill and didn't want to work on my dissertation so I bought this at a cute little bookstore. I keep it on my shelf and I revisit it often because it is one of the most lovely, profound pieces of work I own.
How do we live our lives to the fullest -- become active citizens who avoid complacency and learn to care about others? The truth is that life is about more than us as individuals regardless of what our American ethos tells us. The easiest way to become unhappy in life is to hoard ourselves -- our money and our selves and our talents and our minds -- in our refusal to step outside of our comfy homes and just be.
David Foster Wallace pours himself so eloquently and so openly on to the page that reading this piece feels like sitting across from him at the bar and listening to him barrage you with all of the reasons that you should quit being a fuck up. Stop refusing to care about life and about yourself and about others. Open you mind to a world of possibility that can only happen when you realize you are not alone on this earth. He addresses the purpose of college, which is to teach you how to think. We all, selfishly and irrationally and subjectively, believe that we know how to think, but we don't. The purpose of a higher education is to push you outside of your comfort zone and find compassion in the way others live their lives. It's one of the reasons that the refusal to read literature that makes you uncomfortable in college incenses me. I believe Wallace would say exactly what I'm saying here: "Grow a pair."
The title of this small book comes from an anecdote Wallace tells in the beginning of his speech. Two fish don't know what water is because they are surrounded by it. They don't understand it's what they live and breathe and it's their life force. They take for granted all that we have. Look around sometimes. Remind yourselves that this, this life and these people and your mind, in fact, is water.
For purchase below.