This is Water by David Foster WallaceGraduation season is approaching and I guess that's why there was a new little hardcover book on the shelf in the store one day recently. It's a commencement address by David Foster Wallace that can be read in one sitting and, interestingly, is presented by printing just one idea, often just a sentence, on each page.
This presentation is probably meant to make something that most people wouldn't want to read seem readable. Who can't read a line per page? It might also be that the editors saw that there were some big ideas in this small book. Page by page they can be more easily digested. In any case, it cost somewhere around 14 dollars. Hefty, it seemed to me. The cynic in me suspects that maybe more pages mean higher pricing and this was a factor in the presentation, as well. Who knows.
It's a gem, though. Called This is Water, it's billed on the back as thoughts on compassion. It is. But it's not touchy, feely compassion. Using, sparsely, phrases like 'no-shit' to speak to his college audience, Foster keeps it real. He links thinking with compassion and shows how these two are related - how using your brain intelligently can help you put yourself in others' shoes.
But putting it in that nutshell seems so, as Foster might say, "lame and banal." He wisely describes what he means instead of preaching ideas at the students. In a wonderful depiction of the boredom and frustration of everyday life that most college students have yet to experience at their age, he relates the hypothetical but oh-so-identifiable experience of being tired after a rotten day at work, hungry, and needing to go to the grocery store before you can go through the equally rotten experience of cooking for yourself and satisfying that hunger. However, Foster says, the line in the supermarket is long, the behemoth cars on the road are cutting you off and you're miserable because all you want is to go home and eat. For most people at this point, Foster says, it's all about themselves.
But wait, he writes,
"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 large, heavy SUV so they can feel safe; 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." (Foster's italics.) This is Water, page 85
But reading it in context is even more impressive. So I recommend This is Water as an economy of words with an abundance of meaning. This is lean meat; no fat here. Everything is there for a reason. I suspect the 'no-shit' reference made the message more credible and palatable for young people to hear. Rather than being solely amusing or drily informative, the anecdotes at the beginning serve their dual purposes of drawing in the attention of the speech's audience/readers and illustrating a point.
Foster suffered from depression and committed suicide in 2008. Another writer who suffered depression, Tennessee Williams, once wrote in his play Summer and Smoke, "Life is such a mysteriously complex thing that no one should really presume to judge and condemn the behavior of anyone else." Sounds like Foster and Williams shared more than an illness; they seem to have had something similar to say.
And, perhaps, we all should listen.