Not many commencement speeches survive the day they’re given. Even fewer are active well beyond the lifetime of their author. The speech that the writer David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005 breaks both rules.
His address, informally titled “This Is Water,” was never filmed. However, it has been circulating on the Internet for years in transcribed form, particularly after Wallace’s suicide, in September 2008. Unlike his heavily footnoted, fractal-like novels, the speech was relatively straightforward, focusing on the “capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away.”
In breaking many of the conventions of “motivational” or “inspiring” commencement speeches, it gained hundreds of thousands of devotees over time, who e-mailed transcription links to their friends, printed out copies to give to graduating relatives, and posted quotes on their social-media pages. Hard-core fans could find audio recordings of the speech on YouTube.
In the spring of 2009, Little, Brown and Company attempted to crack down on the Web-based transcripts. The company, Wallace’s publisher during his lifetime, was printing a book that capitalized on the speech’s popularity. The book, which contains only an edited version of the speech, runs 134 pages: one sentence per page.
Now there’s a new version, designed for the attention-deficited. The Glossary, a video-graphic company in California, has stripped the speech down to its main story line, of a hypothetical grocery-store trip, and runs audio of Wallace’s speech over a re-enactment of the scenario. The original audio from Kenyon clocks in around 25 minutes. Glossary’s bowdlerized version takes nine. No doubt, there’s an audience for the core message, though fans of Wallace’s real talk—about privilege, prestige, and the difficult value of a liberal-arts degree—may miss the part where he talks about bumper stickers.
Take a look at the latest version below: