Richard Powers to Deliver Commencement Address to Class of 2023

Prolific, Pulitzer Prize-winning author celebrated for his thoughtful explorations of humanity’s place in the world.

April 17, 2023

Office of Communications

author Richard Powers.
Photo credit: courtesy of Richard Powers

Richard Powers, author of 13 novels, polymath, and celebrated tree whisperer, will deliver the keynote address for Oberlin College and Conservatory’s Commencement ceremony honoring the Class of 2023 on Monday, May 22.

Powers’ compelling, genre-busting writings on environmentalism, music, diversity, and the implications of technological innovation have received praise and recognition from readers and reviewers alike.

His novel The Echo Maker won the National Book Award in 2006. Powers is the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for The Overstory—“the best novel ever written about trees, and really, just one of the best novels, period,” in the words of author Ann Patchett.

“Trees used to talk to people all the time,” Powers wrote in The Overstory. “Sane people used to hear them.”

Fans of the cerebral bestseller, an epic spanning generations that challenges the primacy of humans in life and literature, include Barack Obama. “It changed how I thought about the earth and our place in it,” the former President told the New York Times.

Powers’ work makes him an especially apt choice to address Oberlin’s 2023 graduating class, says Valerie Hotchkiss, the Azariah S. Root Director of Libraries and professor of English and book studies at Oberlin. “The themes he deals with are so central to values that Oberlin holds—namely, the conundrum of living responsibly in the modern world and the importance of the humanities and humanity in our struggle to do so.”

Like so many Oberlin alumni, Powers has many talents. An accomplished student of vocal music, he trained in the cello and also plays guitar, clarinet, and saxophone.

Powers was born in Evanston, Illinois. A voracious reader—he devoured Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle in fourth grade—he believed he was “destined to become a scientist.”

He enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to study physics, but a charismatic teacher convinced him that literature was “the perfect place for someone who wanted the aerial view,” Powers has said. He switched his major to English and earned two degrees in the subject.

He quit his day job as a computer programmer to write his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance.  “I thought, I’m going to put everything that I know in this book, because I’m never going to get another shot at this,” Powers has said. “Afterwards, I figured I’d have to go back and do jobs that people are willing to pay for.” The critical reception persuaded him he could make a living as a writer.

Powers joins a list of notable authors to visit campus as Oberlin Commencement speakers, among them Robert Frost (1937), Alex Haley (1976), Maya Angelou (1983), and David Sedaris (2018). He will also be awarded an honorary doctor of humanities degree.

The address will be livestreamed as part of Commencement weekend festivities.

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