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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