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100 Books in One Year: This is Water by David Foster Wallace

By Mike R. (Mr. Controversy) | Books | March 23, 2009 |

By Mike R. (Mr. Controversy) | Books | March 23, 2009 |

I’ll be honest, I’ve never read any of David Foster Wallace’s works. I had never even heard of him until he had sadly committed suicide last year, and once I’d heard the praise for his work from others I realized he wasn’t printed for just any reason. His most talked about work (at least from what I’ve read) is Infinite Jest, an infamously hard to keep up with work of fiction that blurs the lines between fiction and non-fiction. (I’ve never heard of a book that’s ever had as many footnotes from fake sources as this one.) All of this talk, all of this hype, everything I’d heard or read motivated me to request a copy of This Is Water, which is basically a reprinting of a commencement speech he gave in 2005. At first it might seem like a cash-in title. (Honestly, how many graduation speeches can you think of that have been published?) That assumption wouldn’t only be wrong though, it would also be insulting. This is the final published work of a writer that could be considered one of the many voices of the current generation, and it is a speech that teaches a lesson people could stand to learn these days.

The book is only 144 pages long, and it’s a one sitting read that’s mostly broken into a couple lines a page. At first, this might seem weird to read, but once you settle into it the page breaks seem to flow like natural cadence for speaking. However, in those 144 pages of bite-sized lines, Wallace basically makes a case for why you should be going to college in the first place. He sums up why we should throw ourselves willingly into a pile of debt that’s a couple hundred thousand dollars large, with no promise of getting a job in said field (or these days, any job at all), and to invite intense scrutiny of our skills and academic competition that tests them. Why? It teaches us to become the people the world needs more of…people that think, people that can feel empathy and understand that the world around them is as unstable as they think it is, and the only thing that stops it from crashing down around us is our capacities to reason and feel. College rounds us out, and prepares us for lives that while they may not be totally fulfilling, they certainly aren’t useless. In a short, finite space, Wallace shows us multiple cases where the world revolves around how we perceive it.

This Is Water is destined to become a graduation gift, but it’s also a book that should be passed onto anyone you know will enjoy it. I personally plan on giving it as a gift to a very good friend of mine who’s graduating college this year. What’s better is that I felt like I graduated too. This book took me back to my graduation in 2006, and made me wish it was this speech I had heard. This is a message that doesn’t pander, doesn’t water reality down, but at a crisp and concise length manages to tell the reader that the world doesn’t revolve around them…but they can still effect its condition, if they just pay a little more attention to everyone else around them. I’m going to have to seek out one of David Foster Wallace’s other books now, because if this is what he does with reality then I eagerly await seeing what he does with fiction.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. Details about here and the growing number of participants and their blogs, from which these reviews are pulled, are here. And check here for more of Mike R.’s reviews.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.