The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

J.K. Rowling’s famous graduation speech doesn’t get any better with pictures

In 2008, J.K. Rowling delivered the Harvard graduation speech, which quickly became the most-viewed commencement address on the university’s Web site. On Tuesday, just as strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” begin to swell once more, Rowling’s speech is finally available in book form — or, more specifically, gift-book form.

“Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination” is a long title for a $15 book that contains fewer than 3,000 words. But there’s no quibbling with the sentiment or the cause: Rowling is directing all her proceeds to Lumos, her children’s charity, and financial aid at Harvard.

“Very Good Lives” joins a growing shelf of graduation speeches transformed into books. Commencement addresses by George Saunders, Neil Gaiman and the late David Foster Wallace have, apparently, done well enough in previous years to keep publishers interested.

But the process of thinly spreading a few minutes’ comments across 100 or so pages rarely enhances a speech. “This is Water,” Wallace’s commencement address at Kenyon College, was practically attenuated into haiku in 2009. A sentence or two by Lao-tzu or Rumi can carry a page. Everybody else should probably go ahead and fill that white space.

This problem is pronounced in Rowling’s new book. The speech she delivered offers the usual graduation-day fare — don’t be afraid of failure; serve our needy world well — but it’s humble and moving, full of ideals one hopes the world’s most privileged young people will take to heart. But to produce enough pages to justify a binding, Little, Brown has broken those remarks into snippets and illustrated each one with black-red-and-white drawings. The result feels like a long, bland greeting card. When Rowling speaks of her life since graduation, we get an illustration of a ladder. When she extols the benefits of failure, we’re provided with a drawing of a pencil eraser.

See Rowling write. See her try again.

Those childish touches turn far more annoying when Rowling describes the torture victims she worked with at Amnesty International. “As long as I live,” she writes, “I shall remember walking along an empty corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of pain and horror such as I have never heard since.” A young man had just been told that, “in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.” Instead of allowing those scarring words to resonate as they originally did in Cambridge, they’re made to compete with a full page of squiggly black lines around the phrase “A SCREAM OF PAIN AND HORROR.” Four pages later, the drawing of a dove assures us that all will be well.

At a time when political orations are merely piles of applause lines and church sermons have grown trite, it’s encouraging to see this widespread desire to share what few inspiring speeches are still being delivered. It’s a shame, though, that we can’t do it in a form that reflects the speakers’ unadorned eloquence.