"We do not need magic to transform our world; we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already"
Very Good Lives is one of the most unassuming and unpretentiously presented volumes you will ever come across. It certainly stands plain and slim in my compact personal library. If it weren't for the wisdom contained within the little red book with a white dust jacket, and the notoriety of the author, this 80-page piece might go relatively unnoticed in the world. I would not have impatiently pre-ordered it on Amazon or eagerly awaited its arrival on 14th April this year.
As if J.K. Rowling's career writing and creating the Harry Potter empire between 1997 and 2007 (and beyond) weren't enough, her subsequent media presence and writing fame have proved both her talent and a rare determination and work ethic. When she presented her speech at the Harvard Commencement of 2008, the transcript of which was to become the content of the book, it is unlikely that she ever conceived of it being reproduced in text format. Some have criticised the fact that publishers Little, Brown did little more than produce the transcript of the 20-minute speech alongside pretty and creative illustrations. Personally I think that the words count more than any flowery introduction or photo collage could have added.
In the twenty-minute speech, available to view on YouTube, Rowling proves herself not only as an orator, but also as a talented speech writer and a passionate humanitarian. In relating her own experiences of poverty, love, life and loss, she illustrates several prescient messages. The central note that runs throughout her is however that we are our own heroes. Rowling started her speech discussing her Classics degree and subsequent work with Amnesty International, going on to quote Seneca, but her real value is shown in her fiction, which includes the seven-strong Harry Potter series. Harry Potter and friends live in uncertain and dark times, but as Dumbledore assures Harry in The Deathly Hallows, happiness can be found in dark times if we turn on the light.
Finally, I return to the quote neatly printed on the back of Very Good Lives. It is a quote which is aimed, as is the speech, at anyone who has ever felt hopeless, worthless, or powerless. It is J.K. Rowling reminding us of our inherently unique human quality of hope. Even if we are starving, poverty-stricken, mentally ill, or suffering impossibly, we have the opportunity to hope for more, or as she puts it more eloquently, to imagine better. We can imagine a better future, imagine ourselves out of dark times and choose resilience over defeat.
Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination (2015), J.K. Rowling; Little, Brown