Poverty is romanticised only by fools

very good livesVery Good Lives
by J K Rowling

I was commissioned to write some short comments about this book for For Books’ Sake, but I found that I had more to say than I could squeeze into 150 words, so here is my longer review.

This is Rowling’s 2008 Harvard commencement speech, published for the first time in book form. Taking as her subjects “the fringe benefits of failure” and “the importance of imagination”, Rowling shares the wisdom of her own experience with the new graduates. Some of her comments and advice are profound, some less so. Some of it is old and familiar, some new and original.

As you might expect of a speech that took maybe 20 minutes to give, this isn’t a big book, even though to bulk it out the publisher has added illustrations to every page by Joel Holland, in bold black and red. His style is so-so but the overall effect still makes the book feel special and beautiful.

Like all good speeches, Rowling’s begins with jokes and ends with profundity. Between the two she recalls her own college days and first few years following graduation, including her parents’ wish that she study something useful and career-focused.

“I cannot criticise my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts – that is something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.”

Though it never gets overly personal, Rowling still delivers her advice with frank honesty. She points out the privilege the students she is speaking to already enjoy simply by being Harvard graduates, while making clear this does not mean she assumes their lives have all been free from hardship. But I actually found her comments on the value of failure a little predictable. It is when discussing imagination that I felt she really said something different and of value to me personally.

“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation; in its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

It’s such a true statement and I found myself feeling warmer towards Rowling than I perhaps ever have as she illustrated her point with anecdotes from her time working for Amnesty International. I’m grateful to For Books’ Sake for arranging the review copy for me as otherwise I would not have picked this book up, but it was most certainly worth my time.

Proceeds from this book will go both to Lumos, Rowling’s children’s charity, and to financial aid for students at Harvard.

Published April 2015 by Sphere/Little, Brown.

Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.