This Is Water

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This Is Water
First edition hardcover
AuthorDavid Foster Wallace
Cover artistMario J. Pulice
PublisherLittle, Brown and Company
Publication date
April 14, 2009
Media typeHardback

This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life is an essay by David Foster Wallace. The text originates from a commencement speech Wallace gave at Kenyon College on May 21, 2005. The essay was published in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006 and in 2009 its format was stretched by Little, Brown and Company to fill 138 pages for a book publication.[1] A transcript of the speech circulated online as early as June 2005.[2]

This is the only public speech Wallace ever gave outlining his outlook on life.[3] Time magazine has ranked This Is Water among the best commencement speeches ever delivered.[4]


David Foster Wallace was brought to Kenyon College at the request of an English and philosophy student in 2005. He was the winning nominee out of 10 to 12 others, beating out then-Senator Hillary Clinton, and astronaut turned senator John Glenn.[2] In response to the request, Wallace jokingly said that at 43, he was far too young to give the speech.[2] He also said he was hesitant to accept because of his anxiety when speaking in front of a crowd.[2] Wallace was persuaded to speak after the school's commencement coordinator allayed his anxiety by stressing the school's intimacy and promising a game of tennis at his request.[2] Wallace's nervousness continued until the day of the event, and Kenyon professors with whom he had breakfast that morning have said he referred to the commencement exclusively as "the big scary ceremony".[2] Wallace continued to edit the speech until hours before he gave it. According to his biographer D. T. Max, Wallace considered the speech an opportunity to convey the things he cared about without the extra work required of a novel.[5]


The speech covers subjects including the difficulty of empathy, the unimportance of being well-adjusted, and the apparent lonesomeness of adult life.[1] It suggests that the overall purpose of higher education is to learn to consciously choose how to perceive others, think about meaning, and act appropriately in everyday life.[6] Wallace argues that the true freedom acquired through education is the ability to be fully conscious and sympathetic.

Authors Robert K. Bolger and Scott Korb have said that Wallace used the speech to outline his own spiritual philosophy and the methods he used to find peace when wrestling with anxiety and depression.[6] Bolger and Korb consider the speech almost theological in nature.[6] The speech's themes were expanded on in Wallace's novel The Pale King, posthumously published in 2011.[7]


The speech met with universal acclaim, but the posthumously published book This Is Water received mixed reviews. Some critics worried that the physical formatting of the speech tainted its delivery.[8] Zach Baron of The Village Voice wrote that he feared that the essay's now-stretched format provided an almost mantra-like emphasis on areas not intended by Wallace.[8]

Another debate on the published format is over a slight rewrite. In the delivered speech, Wallace concluded an extended metaphor with, "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." Due to Wallace's suicide, the publisher chose to remove the final line, "They shoot the terrible master",[8] which has polarized critics. One side believes that changing an author's words is unacceptable if the original meaning is to be preserved.[8] But in defense of the edit, the other side argues that the edit is essential to preserving the original message. Author Tom Bissell wrote, "any mention of self-annihilation in Wallace's has a blast radius that obscures everything around it."[8][9] Bissell fears that the line may distract readers from its core elements and therefore supports its removal.[8][9][5]

A nine-minute truncated cinematic video adaptation of Wallace giving the speech was produced by The Glossary and published on YouTube and Vimeo in May 2013. It was well received, but was removed by Glossary on May 21, 2013, due to a copyright claim by Wallace's estate.[10]


  1. ^ a b Foster., Wallace, David (2009). This is water : some thoughts, delivered on a significant occasion about living a compassionate life. Kenyon College. (1st ed.). New York: Little, Brown. ISBN 978-0316068222. OCLC 290479013.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  2. ^ a b c d e f Levine, Sam (2016-05-20). "David Foster Wallace's Famous Commencement Speech Almost Didn't Happen". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2017-11-05.
  3. ^ Popova, Maria (12 September 2012). "This Is Water: David Foster Wallace on Life". Brainpickings. Retrieved 2019-05-01.
  4. ^ "Complete List - Top 10 Commencement Speeches". Time. Retrieved 2017-11-05.
  5. ^ a b Max, D. T. (2012). Every love story is a ghost story : a life of David Foster Wallace. New York: Viking. ISBN 978-0670025923. OCLC 779263461.
  6. ^ a b c Gesturing toward reality : David Foster Wallace and philosophy. Bolger, Robert K.,, Korb, Scott. New York. 2014-06-19. ISBN 9781441128355. OCLC 857981573.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link) CS1 maint: others (link)
  7. ^ "Book review: 'The Pale King' by David Foster Wallace". Los Angeles Times. 2011-04-15. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved 2017-11-17.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Alyea, Ty (2012-04-03). ""This is Water"-- Remediating David Foster Wallace's Kenyon Commencement Speech". Archived from the original on 2012-05-30. Retrieved 2017-11-16.
  9. ^ a b Bissell, Tom (24 April 2009). "Essay - David Foster Wallace's Kenyon College Address - Great and Terrible Truths -". The New York Times. Retrieved 2017-11-17.
  10. ^ Griner, David (2013-05-09). "The Story Behind 'This Is Water,' the Inspiring Video People Can't Stop Watching". Adweek. Retrieved 2015-09-08.

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