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J. K. Rowling

J. K. Rowling

by William H. Benson

July 13, 2018

     Recently, I discovered that I can watch on YouTube certain commencement addresses at Harvard.

     In May this year, Mark Zuckerberg spoke, and last year it was Steven Spielberg’s turn. In 2013, Oprah Winfrey spoke, and Bill Gates in 2007. Other speakers include: Michael Bloomberg, David Souter, the late Daniel Moynihan, Alan Greenspan, Al Gore, and Colin Powell. This is a distinguished list, but the best, I think, is Joanne Rowling, aka J. K. Rowling, who spoke on June 5, 2008.

     I admit that I have never read any of J. K.’s Harry Potter books, because I do not enjoy the fantasy genre. A few weeks ago, in June, the media noted that twenty years have passed since the publication of her first Harry Potter book. I have listened to her recent crime detective novels that she writes under the pen name Robert Galbraith. They are ok, but I prefer Sue Grafton, Dick Francis, or Robert Parker.

     Harvard holds its commencement outside, in the Tercentenary Theatre area, between Widener Hall and the Memorial Church. On YouTube, she walks to the microphone and appears frightened, vulnerable, even intimidated, and she admits as much in her opening statement. She does not dwell on her phenomenal success with Harry Potter, but mentions her creation only in passing. 

     She begins with a few jokes about her own college graduation from Exeter College in the U.K., and then she turns serious. “I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the twenty-one years that have expired between that day and this.”

     She thought of two answers: “the benefits of failure,” and “the crucial importance of imagination.”

     To please her parents, she had agreed to study German and French at Exeter, majors that they thought more useful than literature, her first choice, but as soon as they drove away, she said, “I ditched German and scuttled off down to the Classics corridor.” She admits that there is no subject “less useful than Greek mythology for securing the keys to the executive bathroom.”

     After J. K. graduated from Exeter, she worked at a few temporary jobs, and then confessed, “a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. A short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain.”

     She tells the graduates that she “will not tell you that failure is fun,” but that it is “a stripping away of the inessential,” and that for her, “I was set free. I was still alive, and I had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea.”

     She then turns to her second topic, the importance of imagination, but she takes an unexpected turn.

     At one of her day jobs after graduation, she had worked “at the African research department at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London.” It was her job to open the mail and read the letters of torture victims, who begged for help. She stared at the photographs. She read their words. The victims had smuggled the documents out of the African countries where rape and murder were constant terrors.

     She says, “Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares about some of the things I saw, heard, and read.” Also, she says, “Every day I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically-elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.”

     She wonders about the reasons behind the brutality, and she arrives at the conclusion that “many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages. They close their minds and hearts to any suffering. They refuse to know.” In other words, they have no empathy, no capacity to know what their victims are feeling, no ability to imagine. They are cruel.

     Near the end of her address, J. K. quotes an ancient Greek, whose works she studied at Exeter. “Plutarch said, ‘What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.’ This is an astonishing statement, and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world.”

     She then advises the Harvard graduates of 2008 to stay close to, and remain friends with, their fellow graduates. She says, “At our graduation we were bound by enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never come again.” Indeed, I agree, it will not.

     J. K. finishes with a second quote from a Classic author, this one from the ancient Roman, Seneca, who said, “As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.”