Essays Worth Reading | This is Water by David Foster Wallace

Sunday, February 28, 2021


This is Water by David Foster Wallace

Commencement Address Given at Kenyon University, May 21, 2005

Genre: Essay | Commencement Address

Format: Find transcript here.  Find audio here. 

This is Water

This is the only David Foster Wallace piece I've read so far, though he wrote plenty of short stories and some books. 

The Rolling Stone reports when Wallace was in high school, his passion for tennis started to wane as he began smoking more pot and settling into a battle with the clinical depression that would eventually take his life. He gives the commencement address at Kenyon College about three years before his death.

Foster starts with a story about two fish swimming. An older fish swims by and asks, "How's the water?" One of the younger fish responds, "What the hell is water?"

He works through the real meaning of education, choosing awareness of the world and our own wiring versus just swimming, oblivious to the "water" that makes up the environment.

I notice something different each time I read this. It's worth a read.


The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. 


I get lost a bit reading this piece thinking about the context, thinking about Wallace's life and struggle to find substance, structure, a system to manage his depression. Still, it is a speech I've read a few times and will read again.

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