This is Water by David Foster Wallace

Slow Sunday morning, while surfing the YouTube ocean, I stumbled upon the audio recording of David Foster Wallace’s This is Water speech. Any DFW fan knows about the commencement speech he famously gave at Kenyon College in 2005, and I’m probably one of the few who hadn’t yet listened to it. So this morning, I hit the play button and was blown away by it. Unsurprisingly, I guess, as the speech was met with universal acclaim.

I suspect my being an adult father of three kids played a role, as I was nodding all the time, often feeling emotional about it. Anyway, here’s the YouTube recording I’m talking about, and here’s a transcription I dug out of the Internet Archive.

Spoiler warning, I’m now going to quote Wikipedia, where I found a good summarization of the themes covered:

The speech covers subjects including the difficulty of empathy, the unimportance of being well-adjusted, and the apparent lonesomeness of adult life. It suggests that higher education’s overall purpose is to consciously choose how to perceive others, think about meaning, and act appropriately in everyday life. Wallace argues that the true freedom acquired through education is the ability to be fully conscious and sympathetic. Authors Robert K. Bolger and Scott Korb have said that Wallace used the speech to outline his spiritual philosophy and the methods he used to find peace when wrestling with anxiety and depression.

I also learned on Wikipedia that the speech’s themes were expanded in Wallace’s novel The Pale King, posthumously published in 2011. With all its intimidating size, the Pale King has been sitting on my nightstand (aka reading list) for ages. Maybe it’s time to deal with it.

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