Review: ‘Very Good Lives’ by J.K. Rowling

This will probably be a very brief review, because this is a reasonably brief book. It took me perhaps twenty minutes to read.

Very Good Lives

Very Good Lives is the commencement address J.K. Rowling gave at Harvard University in 2008. I’ve seen many times a quote attributed to Rowling which I had not realised came from this speech:

It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

I can’t say I totally agree with the statement, but it is certainly an idea worth thinking about. It suggests some interesting things about conception of failure and success, their definition against each other, whether they can be mutually inclusive, and plenty of other conversations. All I can ask after having read the transcribed, illustrated, printed and bound copy of this speech though, is why on earth is this the part most often quoted?

First of all, the book itself, as a physical object, is lovely. It is very nice to hold – a slim hardback volume but with a good weight to it. The dust jacket and hardcover itself are both very soft to hold, and I won’t deny having stroked the cover a little bit when I first got it! The illustration of the whole text is especially beautiful – every page has a small, centralised paragraph of text with plenty of blank space, which I think is a must for any text with big ideas for you to think about. The illustrations around the text pick up on the mood of each little bit, fill the page dynamically and still are simple enough to allow the words themselves to remain the focus.

As a recent graduate myself, I found a lot of Rowling’s words here both reassuring and inspiring. It made me feel better about my current situation and my future abilities.

Given that the only work of Rowling’s that I’d read previously was the Harry Potter series, I’m pleased to have really enjoyed this. I haven’t ignored The Casual Vacancy or Robert Galbraith’s books out of dislike, but simply because they’re not genres I usually go for!

This book, however, I’m really impressed with, and glad to have read it. I have marked in my copy a few favourite bits (with post-its of course, not pen!) – I am certain I will return to it in the future to ruminate a bit more on the ideas she presents and reassure myself with her words.

Importantly, I did not feel like I reading the same advice that many of us have heard since childhood, rephrased and repackaged with pretty illustrations. Rowling’s words feel genuine and heartfelt, an impression reinforced by the fact that the proceeds of the book sales are going to Lumos, J.K. Rowling’s international charity working to end the institutionalisation of children around the world, as well as to financial aid at Harvard University.

I’d recommend this to anyone who will be graduating soon or has graduated recently, or perhaps even anyone starting on a new part of their lives and feeling a little uncertain. The subtitle is an accurate description of the discussion given: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination. It’s given me plenty to think about as well as cheering me up about where I am in life, which is really quite a lot to be grateful for.


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