Tag Archives: david-foster-wallace

Our Self-Centered ‘Default’ Worldview: DFW’s Commencement Address

Recent talk of the cor­res­pond­ence bias (here) reminded me of pos­sibly the best com­mence­ment speech that I’ve not yet writ­ten about (and I’ve writ­ten about quite a few): Dav­id Foster Wal­lace’s com­mence­ment address to the gradu­ates of Kenyon Col­lege in 2005.

The speech, often cited as Wal­lace’s only pub­lic talk con­cern­ing his worldview, was adap­ted fol­low­ing his death into a book titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Sig­ni­fic­ant Occa­sion, About Liv­ing a Com­pas­sion­ate Life and is essen­tial read­ing for any­one inter­ested in per­son­al choice: the choice of think­ing and act­ing in a way con­trary to our self-centered “default” world­view.

Actu­ally, scrap that, it’s just essen­tial read­ing for every­one.

Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long check­out lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a con­scious decision about how to think and what to pay atten­tion to, I’m gonna be pissed and miser­able every time I have to shop. Because my nat­ur­al default set­ting is the cer­tainty that situ­ations like this are really all about me. About MY hun­gri­ness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like every­body else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repuls­ive most of them are, and how stu­pid and cow-like and dead-eyed and non­hu­man they seem in the check­out line, or at how annoy­ing and rude it is that people are talk­ing loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and per­son­ally unfair this is. […]

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the free­way, fine. Lots of us do. Except think­ing this way tends to be so easy and auto­mat­ic that it does­n’t have to be a choice. It is my nat­ur­al default set­ting. It’s the auto­mat­ic way that I exper­i­ence the bor­ing, frus­trat­ing, crowded parts of adult life when I’m oper­at­ing on the auto­mat­ic, uncon­scious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my imme­di­ate needs and feel­ings are what should determ­ine the world’s pri­or­it­ies.

To read the speech I recom­mend the ver­sion from More Intel­li­gent Life linked above as it is true to the speech as it was giv­en. If you prefer a slightly more edited read, The Wall Street Journ­al’s copy and The Guard­i­an’s copy may be more to your taste.

Grammar Precisionists, Rejoice!

Jason points to a 10-ques­tion gram­mar chal­lenge giv­en to the stu­dents of a non-fic­tion work­shop held by Dav­id Foster Wal­lace.

It’s not a par­tic­u­larly easy chal­lenge, made worse by the fact that my non-nat­ive Eng­lish speak­ing girl­friend just beat my score com­pre­hens­ively (this was­n’t a dif­fi­cult feat, how­ever). The answers are provided, and I par­tic­u­larly like the meth­od Wal­lace used to teach cor­rect adverb use:

You have been entrus­ted to feed for your neigh­bor’s dog for a week while he (the neigh­bor) is out of town. The neigh­bor returns home; some­thing has gone awry; you are ques­tioned.

“I fed the dog.”
“Did you feed the para­keet?”
“I fed only the dog.”
“Did any­one else feed the dog?”
“Only I fed the dog.”
“Did you fondle/molest the dog?”
“I only fed the dog!” [Here Wal­lace’s voice cracked fun­nily.]

The excel­lent Tense Present: Demo­cracy, Eng­lish, and the Wars over Usage (Dav­id Foster Wal­lace) and Polit­ics and the Eng­lish Lan­guage (George Orwell) essays are men­tioned in the answers sec­tion and are well worth your time if you haven’t read them before and have even a passing interest in gram­mar.

Anoth­er use­ful resource for those who fall into that cat­egory: the After Dead­line posts from The New York Times (“Notes from the news­room on gram­mar, usage and style”).

Art Direction for David Foster Wallace’s Books

Mar­ie Mun­daca on her art dir­ec­tion for a num­ber of Dav­id Foster Wal­lace’s books:

It’s a little odd to design interi­ors for fic­tion and lit­er­ary non-fic­tion. It’s just text—what is there to do? There are the obvi­ous things, like leav­ing enough space at the mar­gins. Basic­ally, the design­er­’s job is to pick a font that enhances what she thinks the book con­veys, make all the text fit in the amount of pages edit­or­i­al thinks it will take up, and decide what to do with the chapter open­ers and any strange ele­ments, like lists and sub­heads. Design­ing Obli­vi­on was easy: I picked a clas­sic font that fit a lot of words on the page but was still easy to read. I wanted to emphas­ize the dens­ity of the thoughts, but still allow the read­er the oppor­tun­ity to linger on the page. I decided on gen­er­ous gut­ter and out­er mar­gins, and a slightly longer than aver­age lines-per-page count to high­light the struc­tur­al aspects of the book. Obli­vi­on opens and closes with stor­ies that fea­ture giant, impos­ing women. They reminded me of cary­at­ids —the columns in female form that stand out­side ancient Greek temples. The pages are the columns of that temple. The words are what read­ers come to wor­ship, med­it­ate, pon­der.

Con­sider the Lob­ster was a little dif­fer­ent. Most of the book was very typ­ic­al, but there was one par­tic­u­lar essay called Host that required some spe­cial treat­ment.

Mun­daca talks pas­sion­ately about the design of Wal­lace’s Host and how well the essay was presen­ted in The Atlantic.

I found this quote par­tic­u­larly affect­ing:

I always knew we would work on anoth­er book togeth­er. I did­n’t know that he’d be dead when that happened.

Growing Sentences

How to develope sen­tences in the style of Dav­id Foster Wal­lace (vis­it Jason’s post to see an example of how power­ful this can be for prose):

  1. Begin with an idea, a string of ideas.
  2. Use them in a com­pound sen­tence.
  3. Add rhythm with a depend­ent clause.
  4. Elab­or­ate using a com­plete sen­tence as inter­rupt­ing mod­i­fi­er.
  5. Append an abso­lute con­struc­tion or two.
  6. Paralell-o-rize your struc­ture (turn one noun into two).


  1. Adjectiv­al phrases: lots of them. (Note: apprx. 50% will include the word ‘little’).
  2. Throw in an adverb or two (nev­er more than one third the num­ber of adject­ives).
  3. Elab­or­a­tion — mostly unne­ces­sary. Here you’ll turn nouns phrases into longer noun phrases; verbs phrases into longer verb phrases. This is largely a mat­ter of syn­onyms and pre­pos­i­tions. Don’t be afraid to be vague! Ideally, these elab­or­a­tions will con­trib­ute to voice — for example, ‘had a hand in’ is longer than ‘helped’, but still kinda voice‑y — but that’s just gravy. The goal here is word count.


  1. Give it that Wal­lace shine. Replace com­mon words with their oddly spe­cif­ic, scientific‑y coun­ter­parts. (Ex: ‘curved fin­gers’ into ‘falc­ate digits’). If you can turn a noun into a brand name, do it. (Ex: ‘shoes’ into ‘Hush Pup­pies,’ ‘cam­era’ into ‘Bolex’). Finally, go crazy with the pos­sess­ives. Who wants a tri­pod when they could have a ‘tun­nel’s locked lab’s tri­pod’? Ahem.
  2. Prac­tice. Take one sen­tence — any sen­tence — and Wal­la­cize it. Turn ten bor­ing words into a hun­dred good ones.

I sup­pose you could say that this tech­nique is almost the anti­thes­is of Wil­li­am Zinsser­’s style.