Dose of ‘Potter’ for ’08’s Last Day

Children’s book author Rowling will send seniors off into adulthood

Unnamed photo
Associated Press

Author J.K. Rowling signs a copy of her book, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," in New Orleans in October.

CORRECTION APPENDED

Harry Potter never returned to Hogwarts for his seventh and final year, so J. K. Rowling never got to write a graduation speech for her magical protagonist.

The author of the immensely popular “Harry Potter” series will get a chance to make up for that in June, when she delivers the keynote address at Harvard’s Commencement exercises, the University announced yesterday.

“Perhaps no one in our time has done more than J. K. Rowling to inspire young people to experience the excitement and the sheer joy of reading,” said University President Drew G. Faust in a statement.

The University will also grant the British author an honorary degree at the June 5 ceremony. The Harvard Alumni Association chooses the speaker.

On campus, the news of Rowling’s selection was met with surprise, both pleasant and not. That depended, in part, on one’s devotion to her seven books about the adolescent wizard who saved his world.

“I was a little suprised,” said Class Marshall Andrew J. Tennant ’08. “I haven’t read all the ‘Harry Potters’ and didn’t get into the Harry Potter craze. I’ve been reading a little bit more about her today and getting a better sense of her. Obviously, she’s a world-renowned author promoting this creative idea in this really great series.” [SEE CORRECTION BELOW]

In a flurry of activity on House open lists, Potter fans defended the choice while others worried that Rowling would be a letdown compared to last year’s ceremonies, which featured Bill Gates as Commencement speaker and Bill Clinton as Class Day speaker. (This year’s Class Day speaker has not been announced.)

“We have a war in the Middle East and political division, and we chose a speaker to talk to us about children’s books,” Marco P. Basile ’08 said in an interview in the Quincy House Dining Hall. “It’s a slap in the face to what the University stands for. We should hear about the challenges facing the world.”

Harvard professor Maria Tatar, who teaches a Core Curriculum course on childhood, said the pick wasn’t as unusual as it seemed to some.

“This is the Harry Potter generation that is graduating—the Class of 2008.”

“If you look at her impact on the culture, it certainly equals the power of many of her predecessors” as Commencement speaker, Tatar added. She praised Rowling for never writing down to her audience and for turning children into passionate readers.

The Harry Potter books have sold more than 375 million copies since the first volume, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” was released in 1997. The seven installments, which have been translated into 65 languages and are available in more than 200 countries, propelled Rowling to fame and riches as the 13th-wealthiest woman in the world.

She was unemployed and lived off state benefits as she completed the first Potter novel.

Rowling is the fifth woman since 1950 to speak at Commencement. Previous writers to address the graduates included Ralph Ellison, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Lionel Trilling.

—Maxwell L. Child and Nathan C. Strauss contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Claire M. Guehenno can be reached at guehenno@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Laurence H. M. Holland can be reached at lholland@fas.harvard.edu.


CORRECTION

The Jan. 17, 2008 article "Dose of ‘Potter’ for ’08’s Last Day" misstated the name of the Class of 2008's first class marshall. His name is Alexander J. Tennant, not Andrew J. Tennant.