I am so glad to have finally got my hands on this book. I’ve been on a two month book buying ban to help me get through some of the backlog I’ve accumulated (my shelves are overflowing and there is a towring column of books on top of one of them which grows more perilous by the day). However, that ban lifted on 16th May, so when I was home for the bank holiday last week and found this in a bookshop, it was whisked off the display table and into my possession before you had time to blink!
Very Good Lives is the commencement speech that JK Rowling gave to the Harvard University graduating class of 2008. The two overlapping themes she speaks about in the address are the fringe benefits of failure and the importance of imagination. Sounds confusing? Not really. Think about the things you learn from every time you fail at something, every time you make a mistake. No one wants to be the one to make that mistake, to have to admit that they’ve failed at something. I will be the first to admit that I am my own worst critic, and I often don’t think to look for the benefits in failing at anything. It feels like a black mark against my name, my reputation, my self-esteem. I’m surely not the only one who does that, right?
But we all need to take more time to appreciate the silver linings that come with every cloud. The strength you gain from hitting rock bottom and then clawing your way back up, for example. And this is the sort of thing that JK Rowling espouses, having been on the poverty breadline herself before finding success with Harry Potter. But she applies the meaning of the word ‘failure’ to her young audience, and this paragraph in particular struck a chord with me:
I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartache. Talent and intelligence never yet incoluated anyone against the caprice of the Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose thst everyone here has enjoyed an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.
Secondly, the importance of imagination as a tool to help put ourselves into the shoes of others. Because imagination is the means by which we can empathise with others on every level of their lives: through the good times and especially the bad. It’s why so many people give money to charity appeals; because of their ability to place themselves in the shoes of others. Without imagination, we would lack the capacity to be what it ultimately means to be human, and this is at the heart of Rowling’s writing on the subject in this speech.
As with any writing by JK Rowling, the prose is beautiful. When I read it I was just overwhelmed with an instant sensation of emanating calm, and I finished the book feeling at peace, with myself and the world. The book is also decorated throughout with gorgeous illustrations, which just serve to emphasise the power of the words you are reading, and help you flow from one page to the next. (Does that sound weird to say that? Look up at that page and the leaves blowing across onto the opposite page and deny that it makes it feel as though you’re flowing from page to page!)
As this is the publication of a speech, the illustrations are also pretty helpful to pad out the book, which is not very long. It is a bit of a cop out to count a speech as one of my 52 a year? Maybe. But it’s so emotionally involved and beatifully written that I don’t care, I’m counting it anyway!
You will finish this book quickly. But I promise that you will go back to it again and again seeking comfort, inspiration and guidance. And the words you read will never fail to fulfil you.