This is Water – David Foster Wallace and the compassionate life. (Book Review)

The absolute capital-T Truth is about life before death. 

it is about making it to thirty, or maybe even fifty, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.

David Foster Wallace did make it to thirty without shooting himself in the head, but he didn’t make it to fifty without killing himself, although his speech, immortalised in a small feel-good book published by Little Brown and Co in 2009, to the graduating class of Kenyon College made when he was forty-three, implies his expectation that he wasn’t alone in having thoughts of suicide. The booklet takes on the small hardcover feel of those Blue Day Books, the subtext being a lesson in how to cheer yourself up, but it becomes all the more chilling in the wake of his suicide three years later.


The book is titled This is Water: Some thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate life and in uncharacteristically clear terms describes the true purpose of a liberal arts education is to be taught out to think, that being according to Wallace, the opposite of living on a default setting that has you meander through life seeing yourself as the centre of the universe, this attribute being measured in time spent obsessing over you and your own mental responses to stimuli. It is a suggestion, constantly couched in pleas to not associate the wisdom with him, that to live consciously is to live as an adult and that it is the most difficult thing anyone can do.

It’s a charming little book, constantly self referencing even though it claims not to be, ridden with clichés it decries and typical of Wallace laced with a warm buddy jargon that hides its rather thin premise. It’s lovely, endearing and sentimental. 

What I don’t fully understand, is why it exists. The text spoken by Wallace (I’ve embedded it below, hoping I am not infringing on copyrite, but it is freely available on You Tube) carries far more weight, and once reduced to a small hard cover booklet, that has the audacity to call David Foster Wallace a philosopher (which he isn’t and certainly this is not a philosophical work) and can’t help minimising the speech via the size of the object and its curious penchant for placing single breathless lines on a page, forcing the almost catatonic reader into page turning just to get to the end of the sentence. The formatting eliminates the possibility of seriousness of Wallace’s words to the extent that it ends up being a surprise these sentences aren’t accompanied by the vacant stares of cute kittens.  I can’t imagine the author of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men approving this idea, let alone coming up with it in the first place, so one is abandoned to the horrible thought that Little Brown and Co put it together to capitalise on the death and subsequent ‘second coming’ of David Foster Wallace, making sure that hungry public had another object to purchase in the obsessive chase for his words after his death. 

The speech is nice, made all the more rich by the beauty of his lovely voice and the shadow of his tragic untimely death.


The book is not.