Thursday, May 28, 2009

This is Water


In this season of graduations and commencements, endings and beginnings, I want to recommend this print version of a commencement address given by novelist David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in Ohio in 2005, called This is Water. He died in 2008. It was the only commencement address he ever gave.

If David Foster Wallace had given this speech at UNLV, he might have titled it, “This is Sand” or “This is Dust” or “This is Heat.” The idea is that most of us go through life largely oblivious to the true reality of our surroundings. We become obsessed with superficial aspects of our existence and miss what is completely obvious to an outsider. The value of education is not just in teaching us how to think, but in teaching us what to think about.

David Foster Wallace walks the reader through a memorable exercise of leaving work after a long day and getting stuck in traffic. The challenge is to see the situation from the other people’s perspectives. It is useful to think of potential, compassionate explanations for their behavior because, even if the explanation is not the real one, it serves to remove ourselves from the center of our own attention. For example, he describes a Hummer driver on a cell phone, darting through traffic. I’ll leave you to think of a compassionate explanation.

The book also appeals to me visually. The layout is obviously intended to mimic the pacing of the speech and it is quite effective. This leaves fewer words on some pages than there are in the title. The 136 pages make a very quick read.

I recommend this book to any Beginners, young or old, to anyone seeking a new start in life, to anyone seeking greater consciousness or social conscientiousness.

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