Illustrated by Joel Holland
“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.”
J.K. Rowling’s 2008 commencement speech, given at Harvard, joins the ranks of other such small gift books, including Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman, and This Is Water by David Foster Wallace. Such books are often relatively expensive for their short length, in this case $15. However, like some of J.K. Rowling’s other short works—Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them and Quidditch Through the Ages—Very Good Lives benefits charity, in this case, her own children’s charity, Lumos.
Very Good Lives begins with a funny, self-deprecating opening that gives way to an honest and heart-felt address dedicated to learning from failure, and the importance of imagination and friendship. Subtitled “The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination,” Rowling draws on the lessons of her early failures, while refusing to romanticize poverty or ennoble suffering. Instead, she acknowledges that sometimes failing is inevitable, and, given that inevitability, worth learning from. Among other things, it clarifies priorities: “Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believed I truly belonged.”
Rowling’s conception of imagination and its value is broad, touching not just the creative realm, but the humanitarian one, and our capacity as humans to imagine a better world, and then work to realize it. Given this second theme, it is even more appropriate that the proceeds of the book will be donated to charity. Like many, I expected this section of the address to be about writing or art, but Rowling instead draws on her time working for Amnesty International when she was in her early twenties.
You can watch Rowling’s speech on Harvard’s YouTube channel, or read the text of the address online, but this small book, in addition to benefiting charity, is also quite beautiful. The basic red and white colour scheme echoes Harvard’s school colours, and Joel Holland’s illustrations are simple, but well-executed and carefully laid out. I borrowed a copy from my local library, but I suspect I will be buying a copy to grace my own shelves sometime soon.