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Commencement speaker to remember: David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace gave this commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005. It's been read, shared, and loved ever since.

By Books editor / May 9, 2013

His topic was "living a compassionate life." He asked his listeners to live "consciously, adultly, day in and day out."

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It's a good bet that the audience fortunate enough to hear David Foster Wallace deliver this commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005 will never forget it. Tens of thousands of others who were not there that day have since embraced it as well.

Here at the Monitor, we hear from readers every year at this time who tell us that they continue to read and re-read the words that Wallace spoke that graduation day.

Three years and some months after delivering this address, Wallace took his own life. A year later, his address at Kenyon was turned into a slender book called This Is Water. In a 2009 review of "This Is Water," Monitor book critic Alicia J. Rouverol wrote that the value of the speech is that it makes us think. "He makes us consider what’s beneath us and around us – like water," she wrote.

His words were aimed at college graduates about to go out into the world – and the parents and other relatives who had supported and financed their educations. "The real value of a liberal arts education, [Wallace] is telling us, is that it increases our awareness of what is real," wrote Rouverol, "a reality that is ubiquitous yet also 'so hidden.' That’s what Wallace means by water."

A liberal arts education doesn't so much teach us how to think, said Wallace. Rather, it helps us learn what to think about. Rouverol wrote: "There’s no such thing as an atheist in our culture, Wallace tells us, because, 'Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.' "

The book may be hard to read today knowing that Wallace chose to end his own life.

"Still," writes Rouverol, "there is much here to inspire: 'The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. That is being taught how to think.'"

You can read Rouverol's whole review of "This Is Water" here.

Maybe you know a graduate who'd like a copy.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's books editor.


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