THIS IS WATER by David Foster Wallace

Book Quote:

“But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the general outside world of winning and achieving and displaying.”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns (OCT 4, 2009)

Disclaimer, I start this review with unabashed over-the-top hyperbole.

David Foster Wallace is not God, but close, maybe. That would be the only way to explain the current DFW hysteria: the web sites, a new movie, the buzz, the sales, YouTube. After reading this little book, no bigger than a long letter home from camp, I must conclude that, yes, DFW is–was–perhaps if not God, than a god. One that tragically no longer walks among us. That said, I extend my apologies at such discourse. Surely the first to rush the exit after such a flamboyant silliness would be Wallace himself.

David Foster Wallace, DFW, was not a recluse, but he was shy, and especially shy talking about himself in public. His public image was looming large when Kenyon College asked him to address the 2005 graduating class on a subject of his choosing. In simple and precise prose, in a little over 2400 words, he distilled a wisdom that is lasting and accessible–a friend called it a book full of “brutal truth.” This is a twenty minute read that can change a life.

Refreshingly, DFW does not set himself up to pontificate. In fact, to the contrary. The essay starts with what he calls “…a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories.” What follows is a little parable of two fish, swimming mindlessly along. They encounter an older and presumably wiser fish swimming the other way. The older fish nods and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” A while later, as the two young fish continue on, one of them turns to the other and asks, “What the hell is water?” DFW immediately knocks the audience off their standard of anticipation: “I am not the wise old fish.” he says. And yet what follows is raw wisdom of the ages.

While reading this essay, I played a little game with myself. Vladimir Nabokov, among others, taught that reading should be a hermeneutic experience, that a “text” should be approached free from extraneous information. In other words, read a book setting aside your knowledge of what the author did with his life, or what the critics said, or what was going on politically or socially when the book was written. Experience it singularly. I read This Is Water as if we do not know who the author was, or what fate was in store for him. Rather, I read as if it were a dusty tome, discovered on the shelf of a remote monastery, as if it were a fragile scroll found in a pot by an ancient dead sea. And you know what? The words are worthy of that sort of edification. There is lasting truth here–maybe even capital T truth.

The fish parable is set to alarm us to what is, but forgotten, that we are fish not aware of the medium in which we exists, the medium of noise between our ears. This Is Water is a plea to remind us that life becomes habit, that as adults we grow to assume the most important of voice to be our own, ignoring and dismissing the “outside” world as a result. This is what DFW calls the “default setting.” He writes: “Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” The challenge is to switch off the default setting. “What you don’t yet know,” he tells the graduates, “are the stakes of this struggle.”

This little book deserves a place on your shelf next to the I Ching, or the New Testament, the Four Nobel Truths or the Torah. But don’t put it on your shelf. Keep it on your night stand or next to your reading chair. This is a working text, a simple and humorous reminder of how a life can be carved out and lived truly. But it’s not easy.  “It is unimaginably hard to do this–to live consciously, adultly, day in and day out.” This is not a self-help book. It is more of a wise life companion.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 30 readers
PUBLISHER: Little, Brown and Company; 1 edition (April 14, 2009)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns


EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read a review of:



October 4, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Non-fiction

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.