Saturday, September 26, 2009

'This Is Water'

Bookstores grant me a galvanic pleasure bordering on the manic, or the erotic, or both. I want to draw in the delight of delicious words: by digestion, in morsels or by the mouthful; by injection; by osmosis, by obsessive-compulsive-disorder savant memory; by paper or electronic note taking. I am the kid in the candy shop with eyes as big as donuts.

Tonight I borrowed from the shelves a collection of W.S. Merwin poetry, a collection of poetry by Amber Tamblyn (Bang Ditto), The Complete Works of Michel de Montaigne (Everyman Library edition), and This Is Water: Some Thoughts Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, by the late David Foster Wallace.

I sat down in the cafe and read some of Amber Tamblyn's poems. Very witty. Telling. Scathing. Confessional. I truly enjoyed one poem about hating haiku (not necessarily what you think) (actually, I read that while standing by the shelf, just as I earlier pored over Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About Christianity?, an apologia, as we used to say in Latin) as well as Amber Tamlyn's "Hate, A Love Poem," if I remember its title correctly.

But finances and time being what they are, I read David Foster Wallace's "manifesto" in one sitting. Was I borrowing? Or stealing? Rest assured, I felt little guilt. After all, I first encountered reading in a bookstore at City Lights Books, in San Francisco, in 1974. (You lie, Pawlie, or else why would you be writing about such issues?)

This Is Water is adapted from a commencement address David Foster Wallace gave in 2005 to the graduating class at Kenyon College. He never gave another such address, the book-jacket flap says. Someone decided to publish it, handsomely, after his death in 2008.

I had browsed through the book once before; this time I felt an urgent need to read through it. Not sure why.

And I freely confess I was rather floored by its title, This Is Water. [Some versions of this still float around the 'Net, but I felt better about linking you to a site for purchase of the "authentic" version of this pamphlet.]

Was it serendipity or unconscious connection to pick up this book, following on the heels of my last post, on water?

I once met David Foster Wallace very briefly, which is a semi-humorous story in itself for another time.

He died last year, a suicide. I found out about his tragic death after returning from a friend's wedding, in Ithaca, on a day that also happened to be my son's birthday (which is how I remember the exact day).

Many of those who eulogized David Foster Wallace (who happened to have Ithaca connections), this year and last, in The New Yorker, and on a PRI radio feature, spoke achingly of his gentleness and wit and understanding of American culture.

All of those things come through in this little gem of an essay, made all the more haunting and sad by its references to suicide.

I will not dare (or be so rude) to summarize This Is Water. I already feel like a cheapskate in not having bought it. I do not want to cheapen its message, or its delivery. (Not to say I can't buy This Is Water at some point, for myself or someone else or shave my head and give copies to pedestrians on South Salina Street.)

I can, however, report that I am glad I read it tonight, sitting in that cafe. Yes, it made me rueful (hey, if one can be rueful, can one also be rueless?). But it also made me a bit wiser.

Wrong word.

Attentive?

Braver?

Alive?

Aliver?

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