Call it magic, but the rain held off while Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling delivered the keynote address this afternoon (June 5) at Harvard University’s annual meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association.
Being invited to speak was an “extraordinary honor,” she said, “but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation!”
Rowling – it’s pronounced ROW-ling, as in “rolling in dough” – is the author of a seven-book fantasy series that has sold nearly 400 million copies worldwide.
Assembled under the high trees at Harvard’s Tercentenary Theatre were students, faculty, and guests in a crowd that numbered at least 20,000.
During Harvard’s earlier traditional Morning Exercises, about twice that number witnessed Rowling receive one of 10 honorary degrees.
It was then that Harvard President Drew Faust, Lincoln Professor of History, called the bestselling author “a wizard with words, whose spellbinding tales enchant millions of Muggles with a love for the magic of reading.” (“Muggles,” as everyone knows, are humans without a drop of magical blood in their veins.)
In the afternoon, Faust – calling herself “Muggle-in-chief” – thanked Rowling for “reminding us that reading wonderful books may be the closest we ever come to experiencing true magic.”
During the alumni parade into the theater, the Class of 1936 walked in waving small brooms in case a quick game of Quidditch broke out. (In Rowling’s books, that’s a soccerlike game played on flying brooms.)
At least one Harry Potter was on hand for the speech, wearing the trademark round glasses and a flowing black Gryffindor robe. But Alastair Beeson of Manhattan, age 10, was disappointed at how slowly hundreds of alumni were shuffling to their seats. “At the rate this line is moving,” he said, peering around for a sight of Rowling, “every one of us could get our book signed.”
The onetime French and classics major at the University of Exeter recalled her own 1987 college graduation, at which the main speaker was British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock. “I can’t remember a single word she said,” related Rowling.
“This liberating discovery,” she said, “enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, the law, or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.”
For her own moment at the podium, the 42-year-old author confessed that “I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today.”
Rowling came up with two themes, captured neatly in the title of the address itself: “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination.”
Failure came fast. “A mere seven years after my graduation day,” she said, “I had failed on an epic scale.”
Shattered by the end of a brief marriage, jobless, and a single mother, Rowling said she was “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.”
But adversity uncovered personal strengths that immediate success or comfort might never have revealed: her strong will, “more discipline than I had suspected,” she said, and “friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.”
Failure also stripped away the inessential, said Rowling, who signed her first (and very modest) book contract in 1996.
What was essential had remained. “I was set free,” she said. “I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored; and I had an old typewriter and a big idea.”
Rowling finished writing the first Potter book in Edinburgh coffee shops. “Rock bottom,” she said, “became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
At the same time, failure was no fun, and life often seemed dark and hopeless, said Rowling. Finishing her first book as she did was not the “fairy tale resolution” the press has since made it out to be.
As for the importance of imagination: It goes beyond the play of fiction, she said – “though I personally will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp.”
Imagination starts with “the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not,” said Rowling.
But more important, imagination gives us a “transformative and revelatory capacity,” she said – one “that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”
Empathy is the most beautiful flowering of the imagination, and gives it moral coin, said Rowling.
She recounted her own revealing experience of empathy’s power, when in her 20s she worked in the African research department at the London headquarters of Amnesty International. In her little office, Rowling read the smuggled missives of men and women imprisoned by totalitarian regimes; studied photographs of the disappeared; and heard testimonies of rape, torture, kidnapping, and summary executions.
The experience provided a litany of mankind’s evils, and gave her lasting nightmares, said Rowling. “And yet I learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.”
“The power of human empathy,” she said, “saves lives, and frees prisoners.”
“But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives?” Rowling asked. “Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities.”
Identify with the powerful, and the powerless too, she urged.
“Retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages,” said Rowling. “We do not need magic to transform our world; we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: We have the power to imagine better.”
The author has advantages of her own now. Rowling is worth more than $1 billion – the first person ever to make that kind of money just by writing novels.
And she’s using her riches and fame in support of favorite causes: the plight of one-parent families, poverty, social injustice, and multiple sclerosis, a disease that in 1990 claimed her mother’s life.
Poverty “is not an ennobling experience,” said Rowling, whose parents grew up poor. “Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships.”
Getting yourself out of poverty is admirable, said Rowling, “but poverty itself is romanticized only by fools.”
The fear of poverty was at the heart of a struggle Rowling underwent with her parents on the eve of college. “They had hoped that I would take a vocational degree,” she remembered, and were convinced “that my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that would never pay a mortgage, or secure a pension.”
As a compromise, Rowling promised to study modern languages. But “hardly had my parents’ car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I ditched German and scuttled off down the classics corridor,” said Rowling.
“Of all the subjects on this planet,” she added, her parents “would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.”
Rowling remembered her college years as a time of “a distinct lack of motivation,” punctuated by a happy knack for passing examinations, and by spending “far too long in the coffee bar writing stories.”
But college was also a time to make lasting friends – the “one last hope” that Rowling offered to Harvard’s latest graduates.
“The friends with whom I sat on graduation day have been my friends for life,” she said. “They are my children’s godparents, the people to whom I’ve been able to turn in times of real trouble, friends who have been kind enough not to sue me when I took their names for Death Eaters.”
Rowling’s speech lasted 21 minutes, and the standing ovation afterward went on for almost two.
Then it started to rain. Magic?