This Is Water

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This Is Water
This Is Water.jpg
First edition hardcover
AuthorDavid Foster Wallace
Cover artistMario J. Pulice
CountryUnited States
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, first published in book form by Little, Brown and Company in 2009. The text originates from a commencement speech given by Wallace at Kenyon College on May 21, 2005. The essay was also published in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006 and in 2009 its format was stretched by Little, Brown and Company publication to fill 138 pages for a book publication.[1] A transcript of the speech circulated around the Internet as early as June 2005.[2]

This is also the only public speech David Foster 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 the liberal arts school 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 responded by saying that he, at 43, was far too young to give this speech.[2] The author said he was hesitant to accept because of his anxiety when speaking in front of a crowd and did not immediately agree to the position.[2] Wallace was persuaded to speak after the school's Commencement Coordinator was able to appeal to his anxieties by stressing the intimacy of the school and promising a game of tennis at his request.[2] Wallace's nervousness continued up until the day of the event and Kenyon professors with whom he had breakfast that morning have cited him as exclusively referring to the 'commencement' as, "the big scary ceremony".[2] Wallace continued to edit the speech up until the last hours leading up to its delivery and his posthumous biographer claims the late author considered the speech an opportunity to convey the things he cared about without having to worry about the extra work required of a novel.[5]


This essay covers subjects including the difficulty of empathy, the importance of being well adjusted, and the apparent lonesomeness of adult life.[1] Additionally, Wallace’s speech suggests that the overall purpose of higher education is to be able to consciously choose how to perceive others, think about meaning, and act appropriately in everyday life.[6] He argues that the true freedom acquired through education is the ability to be adjusted, conscious, and sympathetic.

Authors Robert K. Bolger and Scott Korb have said that Wallace used the speech to outline his own spiritual philosophy and that these were the methods with which Wallace attempted to acquire a modicum of peace when wrestling with anxiety and depression.[6] Because of the suggestion on how one ought to live, Bolger and Korb consider the speech to be almost theological in nature.[6] The themes exercised in this speech would later be expanded upon further in Wallace's final novel The Pale King, which was posthumously published in 2011.[7]


While the content of Wallace's prose was met with universal acclaim, the posthumously published This Is Water was met with 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 to 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 states that, "any mention of self-annihilation in Wallace's has a blast radius that obscures everything around it."[8][9] Bissell fears that the now-controversial line may distract readers from its core elements and therefore supports its removal.[8][9][5]

A nine-minute truncated cinematic video adaptation with Wallace's voice of 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.
  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. "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 T.), Max, D. T. (Daniel (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: 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". Retrieved 2017-11-16.
  9. ^ a b Bissell, Tom. "Essay - David Foster Wallace's Kenyon College Address - Great and Terrible Truths -". 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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