David Foster Wallace on how to live a compassionate life.

Marginalia (noun): notes written in the margins of a text.

In June 2015, I decided that I wanted to read more. Lots more. Marginalia is where I share my thoughts on the books that I have read. I only have one test: that it helps me separate the meaningful from the trivial. One book per newsletter. Monthly (ish).

Welcome to this little newsletter. I hope it finds a place in your hearts and minds.

Now that I’m on other side of a massive and long project, I decided to do something I have been wanting to do for a long while: read. I am obsessed with books. They make me happier and help me to pay better attention to the world around me.

Being human is difficult; living a rich and meaningful life is even more challenging. Not having as many tools in my kit as I’d like, I’m taking some time to read and gain from the wisdom of others. These others are most likely dead, more accomplished and way smarter than me.

I don’t have a system for what book I’ll read or when I’ll read it. I only have one test: that it helps me separate the meaningful from the trivial.

I’m a slow reader and a slow thinker. I spend a long time consuming information, and an even longer time digesting it. During the time of reflection, I copy the passages I loved on note cards, which I then file thematically in a massive box. This is called a “Commonplace Book.” The point is to have the ability to retrieve the note cards at appropriate times later in life. When someone close to you passes away, you can explore everything you’ve read on grief and loss. When you fall in love, or feel lonely, or need to laugh, you dig out the cards related to those experiences.

Books and parts of books take on different meanings when read at different points in my life. I don’t like to recommend ways of doing things too strongly, and I don’t want to hold on onto any ideas too firmly. Different methods work for different people at different moments. For now, this practice works for me.

So, here’s the purpose of this newsletter: Once a month (ish, sometimes more frequently), I’ll pick one of these note cards and share it. I will also share a bit about where it comes from, what it means to me, and why I think it’s important. These will be elaborations on thoughts I’ve written on the margins of books as I’ve traveled through them: my marginalia.

Below you’ll find the first issue. I hope you enjoy it.


P.S.: I would love to hear what you write on the margins of books. Mind sharing?

P.P.S: A massive thank you to Nico Luchsinger and Sam McNerney, who both helped me crystallise the idea for this newsletter. You are wonderful humans.

“You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.  Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

This Is Water, by David Foster Wallace

Only three years before David Foster Wallace committed suicide, he delivered one of the greatest, most profound commencement speeches of all time. In This Is Water, delivered to the Kenyon College graduating class of 2005, Wallace answered some fundamental questions: How do we overcome unconscious thought and action? How do we lead a compassionate life? How do we construct meaning from experience? This was the only ever time Wallace spoke publicly about his views on human nature, and it became such a classic that it was published posthumously as a beautiful manifesto titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. The essay in its entirety is one of the most life-altering pieces I have ever come across; the sort of thing I wanted everybody I knew to read or listen to as a matter of urgency.

I had to stop myself from underlining almost the entire thing, though the text on the notecard nearly made my heart stop. What do we unconsciously worship? If it isn’t just something obvious, like religion, what are we valuing? And, more importantly, how does what we worship affect our lives? The danger is less in the worshipping itself and more in the unconscious nature in which we take part in the act:

“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. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.”

Noticing the water is hard work. Waking up to what I’m thinking about and how I’m thinking about it is one of the hardest mental exercises I’ve ever tried. Much of the time, I’m automatically applying a perspective to things that happen in my life without even noticing that application. And sometimes, I’m making decisions without questioning the values those decisions are attached to, or what I’m worshipping in the making of those decisions. This is obviously normal, we are wired to act in these unmindful ways. Paying attention is tremendously difficult, and it takes a lot of will and practice. Gaining the ability to be truly awake however can often be a matter of life-or-death:

“It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about ‘the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.’ This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in…the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger. And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.” 

Wallace uses an every day experience we all go through to illustrate how we get to choose what we see and how we see it: the infuriating after-work trip to the supermarket. I’d struggle to count the times I have stood behind dozens of people in a supermarket queue, silently berating each and every one of them for being in my way, internally enraged at their glacial paces, wallowing in the sorrow of how tired and over-worked I am, thinking what a big waste of my time standing in this queue is, wondering why these people won’t just hurry up so that I can get home, eat dinner, and call it day. We’ve all felt this way. But that’s just one story. You can choose to tell another:

“…petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. 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.” 

Instead of succumbing to our deceptively inescapable inclination to make the supermarket experience all about ourselves, we can notice a kinder and more compassionate story:

“But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down. Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.” 

In the end, David Foster Wallace succumbed to his mind, that terrible master that has plagued so many. His suicide a mere three years later renders his advice as timeless and cosmic as it is tragic.

Thank you for reading.