This is Water


David Foster Wallace at Kenyon in 2005

David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest, delivered the commencement address at my alma mater, Kenyon College, on May 21, 2005.

In my alumni magazine, I read that Foster sat in Sunset Cottage, longtime home of the school’s English department, immediately before delivering the address. According to the students who invited him to campus, Foster Wallace edited a hard copy of his speech—crossing out words, changing words, rephrasing—up until minutes before he delivered the address in the middle of nowhere in Ohio. He swore at the students for persuading him to speak. He was funny, and he was focused.

Foster Wallace’s words have since become the most famous commencement address this century (maybe ever). “This is Water” is a reflection on what it means to be human and to live with care—how it’s often the small choices we make and the ways in which we consider the realities of others that, to quote John Milton, “can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” (The irony, of course, is that Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008.)

One of my favorite websites,, pairs an audio file of Foster Wallace’s speech with a visual representation worth watching:

As members of the Nobles Class of 2013 prepare to make their mark in college and in the world, I wanted to share these musings from a brilliant mind. I hope that, as I did, you find something worth considering in “This is Water.”

- Heather Sullivan, director of communications

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