This Is Water: David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon Commencement Address, One Sentence at a Time


How do you turn David Foster Wallace’s just-shy-of-4000-words Kenyon commencement speech into a saleable, hardbound book? Sentence by sentence, evidently. This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, due from Little, Brown on April 14, devotes one page to each of the 134 sentences that graced the original speech, collectively embellished with a nice uniform wavy line up top.

Footnotes are way more legible, it turns out. Certain zen mantras do gain a certain frisson — “I am not the wise old fish,” say. Others — like the page-to-page opposition of the now-famous “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms nearly always shoot themselves in…the head. / And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger” — are just brutal. The net effect is to imply an entirely different kind of wisdom — of the Tuesdays With Morrie variety — than whatever actual wisdom is contained therein. And from a technical perspective, it couldn’t be more backwards: In life, at least, Wallace never was a man to leave a sentence standing alone.

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