By Katie Marshall
If I could have dinner with any five people in the world, alive or dead, David Foster Wallace would be at the top of the list. I would seat him in between my two deceased grandfathers, across from Buddha and Cheryl Strayed (what an amazing round of Cards Against Humanity that would that be, am I right?)
I remember reading one of DFW’s quotes while scrolling the internet, most likely procrastinating, and loving it so much that I held it, metaphorically, like a fresh kitten with perfectly shaped paws and showcased it, literally, as my Facebook cover photo. “I do things like get in the taxi and say, ‘The library, and step on it.’” It was so simple, so ridiculous, so endearing, so everything I ever want to become. I was hooked.
Months later, a friend shared a clip of “This is water,” Wallace’s 2005 Keynon College commencement speech, with me via text message. “This was made for you,” he typed. For not the first time, he was right. I watched the clip over and over, neglecting my sandwich, each viewing altering my life views. I now share it regularly. I quote it often. In the future, I want the video of it to play on my holographic tombstone.
I’ve researched David Foster Wallace incomprehensibly, but earnestly, over the years. His collection of short stories, “The Girl with The Curious Hair” is incredible and too cool for me. “Infinite Jest” waits for me at my Scuppernong’s book store in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina, anticipating that I will eventually work up the balls to read it. I’ve watched the semi-controversial docu-drama movie about David’s interview with David Lipsky from Rolling Stone, “The End of the Tour” and fell even more in love with Jason Seagal because of it. I’ve read the articles and essays and interviews and have accepted that I now miss an author that I will never have the opportunity to meet.
David Foster Wallace died in September of 2008 after a long, hard battle with depression. He did so much with the time he fought for. He was known for story-sized sentences and self-effacing humor. I believe he was wonderful. His perspective is terribly important. His words are as beautiful as they are thought-provoking. He once said that he wanted to write the books that people would read a thousand years from now. I believe they will. Here are just 21 of DFW’s quotes for when you need some perspective, some motivation, or an opportunity to think about everything that is your life.
1. “Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it.”
2. “I do things like get in a taxi and say, “The library, and step on it.”
3. “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
4. “There is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agenda-less kindness.”
5. “The more people think you’re really great, actually the bigger the fear of being a fraud is, you know?”
6. “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”
7. “Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.”
8. “The great thing about irony is that it splits things apart, gets up above them so we can see the flaws and hypocrisies and duplicates.”
9. “Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.”
10. “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”
11. “The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
12. “Try to learn to let what is unfair teach you.”
13. “The parts of me that used to think I was different or smarter or whatever, almost made me die.”
14. “If you spend enough time reading or writing, you find a voice, but you also find certain tastes. You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your own brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers—not all of whom are modern . . . I mean, if you are willing to make allowances for the way English has changed, you can go way, way back with this— becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul. So probably the smart thing to say is that lucky people develop a relationship with a certain kind of art that becomes spiritual, almost religious, and doesn’t mean, you know, church stuff, but it means you’re just never the same.”
15. “It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.”
16. “The interesting thing is why we’re so desperate for this anesthetic against loneliness.”
17. “The next suitable person you’re in light conversation with, you stop suddenly in the middle of the conversation and look at the person closely and say, “What’s wrong?” You say it in a concerned way. He’ll say, “What do you mean?” You say, “Something’s wrong. I can tell. What is it?” And he’ll look stunned and say, “How did you know?” He doesn’t realize something’s always wrong, with everybody. Often more than one thing. He doesn’t know everybody’s always going around all the time with something wrong and believing they’re exerting great willpower and control to keep other people, for whom they think nothing’s ever wrong, from seeing it.”
18. “There’s good self-consciousness, and then there’s toxic, paralyzing, raped-by-psychic-Bedouins self-consciousness.”
19. “Hear this or not, as you will. Learn it now, or later – the world has time. Routine, repetition, tedium, monotony, ephemeracy, inconsequence, abstraction, disorder, boredom, angst, ennui – these are the true hero’s enemies, and make no mistake, they are fearsome indeed. For they are real.”
20. “It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
“This is water.”
“This is water.”
21. “I wish you way more than luck.”